Editor’s Note – the links in the text aren’t advertisements, but rather links to media related to the text. Click through as you go! Also, thanks to the Medusa’s Group on Facebook for keeping me nostalgically entertained for the last several years.
A couple weeks ago, Dave Medusa, Chicago club luminary and founder of the historic Chicago juice bar –Medusa’s died. It’s taken me some time to really put together a lot of my feelings on the matter, because I spent a good amount of time in my youth at his venue and it helped me really become who I am today. I didn’t know Dave and I can neither confirm nor deny ever meeting him, because that was a very long time ago and I was an extremely awkward, shy kid. Instead of focusing on the man himself, because I feel that would be disingenuous, I can talk about my experience at his club, the music I discovered, the friends I made and how my mind was opened to different people and their lifestyles.
Growing up along Belmont Avenue in Chicago, even though I was so far west (all the way by Austin) show fliers and club posters turned up quite often on telephone poles. Usually they were for Polskie dyskoteki like 1-2-3, Club Polonaise and Club Chicago, but occasionally I’d see something else that grabbed my attention. I would see posters for bands like MORTAR (who were thrashers from the neighborhood) and LIFE SENTENCE (who would become one of my favorite punk bands), but what really grabbed me was fliers for a club called MEDUSA’S.
See, I was way into Greek mythology when I was in Junior High, because (and this will come as no surprise to anyone), I was a huge fuckin’ nerd. Despite my Catholic School mullet or the BAD RELIGION “no crosses” logo painted on my denim jacket, I was — for all intents and purposes — a giant dork. IF anyone talked to me or asked me what I was reading, they would either get a run down of THE ILLIAD or I’d go into great detail about whatever Stephen King novel I was reading, or Jah help them if I was reading LORD OF THE RINGS, because that would be an hour of their life they weren’t getting back. See? Nerd. Dork. Geek. Sure, I was into punk and metal, but remember, this was 1988, *not* 1995. If you liked either genre of music, you were an outcast. You were labeled a loser, a drug addict, a Satan worshiper or you’d just get your ass kicked. Especially if you were a punk.
Seeing a club called MEDUSA’S that advertised “Saturday All Ages Dance” peeked my interests. A place where metal and punk bands play that I could go to and hear new music? Sign me the fuck up.
Flash forward to November of 1988. My parents bought a house, we were moving out of the two flat on the M streets and into an actual house where my saxophone wailing and guitar screeching wouldn’t upset downstairs neighbors and I could crank Napalm Death and Naked Raygun as loud as I wanted. That sounds pretty sweet right? The catch was that the house was in Niles IL — a town *just* outside the Chicago city limits. It was close enough to tease me with city life — but still felt foreign and light years away from everything and everyone I loved. With that move came lost hope to check out Medusa’s.
I should probably take a minute here and explain something — see, I was a latch key kid. Both my parents worked — my dad had two jobs in fact — one in a factory during the day and then at night he would work on people’s HVAC, plumbing, or really whatever they needed him to fix. Since they were never home, I would commonly find my way down to Belmont and Clark in Lakeview to go to THE ALLEY or to Lincoln Park to buy records and tapes at the original WAX TRAX store. I just could never convince my folks to let me go to Medusa’s on Saturday night, even if I had friends who’d want to go with me.
But I digress.
I Am a Patient Boy
At a new school, I had very few friends and I was still an outsider, despite the punk and metal crowd being pretty good at my school. I had friends, but again, quiet, shy, awkward. I didn’t know how to ask if I could hang out and I didn’t know how to ask if I could come with to see bands or whatever, so I ended up introducing some of my friends from the old hood to the scene.
I convinced two of my friends — one of which was Puerto Rican, the other Mexican (this is important to point out, so stay with me here) to go with me to a gig at Medusa’s. They’d never heard of FUGAZI, but they were skaters and trusted my taste. They were hesitant though, because they were concerned about the place being “white boy heaven” and full of “Nazi skins.” I had no idea if this was true or not, but I assured them it would be fine. Would I take them to a place that was unsafe? Would I lead my two childhood friends into a haven of hate and racism? Never. Look, I knew enough about Fugazi to know they were on our side. They were a punk band and they didn’t like Nazis as much as anyone else. I heard the stories and read the articles in zines about Ian McKaye stopping shows because things were too violent. It was going to be OK — and for the most part it was. In fact, if you click the Fugazi text link above, you can hear the whole show, including the SHOC Boys jumping on stage when Fugazi let them talk.
We didn’t have tickets to the show, but we got there super early, because the one thing being Polish and being raised Catholic teaches you is if you aren’t an hour early, you’re an hour late. We somehow managed to get in — I can’t remember if we legitimately got in or if we paid a skinhead security guard to sneak us in, but for the sake of romance, lets say we were sneaked in.
What I remember the most was:
1) How god damned packed that room was. It was uncomfortable and it was hot. Regardless, it was fantastic. This was my second punk show — the first was 7 Seconds at the Cubby Bear the previous fall. This vibe was very different than that gig. There were so many skinheads there. SO MANY. I felt a bit more at ease, because they all appeared to be anti-racist and weren’t fucking with us.
2) The diversity of the crowd. It wasn’t just a bunch of white kids. It white, black, brown, Asian, male, female, punk, skinhead, skater, new waver, weird hippies — it was a god damned United Nations and it was wonderful.
Up until this point, I never really felt at home anywhere. sitting on a curb in the Punkin’ Donuts parking was an anxiety attack for me. Walking into The Alley and seeing kids working there who were infinitely cooler than me made me feel bad about myself. Wax Trax was awesome but I always felt slightly judged by what I was buying (I would learn later than this was really more my insecurity than anything else.) At Medusa’s, it felt like literally no one gave a fuck what I looked like, who I was with or what I was wearing (except I think the kid who had his Doc Martens stolen by Skinheads and then thrown down the stairs might disagree with me). This felt like home.
How Does it Feel…
One of the biggest revelations I had going to Medusa’s was being opened up to different kinds of music. When I was younger — like nine, during the height of the Break Dancing craze, I would listen to WBMX and try to do back spins and caterpillars on a piece of cardboard in the basement of the two flat. Being a chubby kid, that rarely worked out and I moved on to different things I would be bad at like skateboarding and bikes. I had a foundation in house music and hip hop but fell deeply in love with the aggression of punk and metal, leaving those two genres behind until I rediscovered them at Medusa’s.
Remember how I said I didn’t feel judged at Medusa’s? That’s not entirely true. My insecurities really flourished on the main floor. I couldn’t (and still can’t) dance. I’m still awkward and while I can find the beat, my body does not like moving unless it is for purely comedic reasons. Again, no one gave a fuck, but in my 15 year old brain, they did. I was a fat kid trying to dance and all of those older kids had moves and self confidence, so I’d hang back trying to figure out what songs were being played. This though ignited my interest in house music. When I’d go to school on Monday, I’d talk to the kid who sat next to me in study hall who wore Z Cavaricci pants and IOU sweatshirts who was also a DJ. I would ask him questions about house music and he’d make me mix tapes and give me fliers for his gigs at The Purple Hyatt in Lincolnwood.
Where I felt at home though was on the third floor, in the rock room and video room. I can slam dance, so I was set. Don’t wanna dance? Cool. Wanna know who the band is? It’s a video, so you can see it right there on the screen. Boom. I could either participate or be invisible and not feel judged. I discovered so much up on the third floor — BAD BRAINS, THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN, punk girls, goth girls, seltzer water (I also discovered that seltzer water is gross), but most importantly — NEW ORDER. There aren’t many bands that changed the direction of my music taste, but it’s safe to say the first time I saw the video for Bizarre Love Triangle and the whole room stopped at the pause and yelled along to the cut of Jodi Long saying “I don’t believe in reincarnation, because I refuse to come back as a bug or as a rabbit!” I feel like that moment was a turning point.
From NEW ORDER, I was lead to JOY DIVISION (obviously), which lead me to WIRE, GANG OF FOUR, THE POP GROUP, THE SLITS and countless other post punk bands. NEW ORDER also taught me that dance music isn’t bad and that despite what my friends at school said, you can like METALLICA, BAD RELIGION, NEW ORDER and THE KLF. All of these things are allowed. Music is bigger than one genre and you’re doing yourself a massive disservice by closing your mind to anything.
Now All That Remains…
In 1992, MEDUSA’S on Sheffield closed its doors forever. The neighborhood was gentrifying, the new young professional neighbors didn’t like the club being there and the local alderman made it damn near impossible for Shelton to run the club the way he wanted to.
Shelton tried to reopen the club at the Congress Theater and that lasted a little while, but it wasn’t the same — my Medusa’s era had ended. I’d moved onto punk shows at Wrigleyside and McGregor’s and by 1994, I’d become a Fireside Bowl rat.
Because of Medusa’s however, I meet a lot of great people, most prominently my friend Mike, who I often refer to as New Wave Mike. He and his friend Andy played in a fantastic synth pop band called Alterations, who I’m a huge fan of (and you should be too.) The connected because of their song Two Purple Lights, memorializing Medusa’s.
What Medusa’s gave me and really my entire generation was a place to meet other people who shared common interests, who in their day to day lives were looked at as outsiders, due to their lifestyle choice, their sexuality, their gender identity or the music and subculture they chose to identify with. It brought together kids from all walks of life — middle class suburban kids, blue collar latch key kids (such as myself), kids who were below or just above the poverty line, kids from stable families, kids from broken homes, kids with no families at all — on the dance floor, in the mosh pit or just leaning against the wall with an Orangina — we were all equal, one in the same.
Death metal has a place next to hip hop. Hardcore punk and house music can coexist. Industrial music and pop songs can be friends. These things and the people who love them are so much stronger together as one than they are divided. Music brings people together and unites us regardless of skin color, ethnicity, where we come from, how we present our gender or who we love. Medusa’s was proof of this idea and I don’t think it’s unheard of that we can make a world where we acknowledge and celebrate our differences and commonalities and learn to love in a world where we all belong.
Front 242 – Head Hunter
Nitzer Ebb – Join in the Chant
Ministry – Stigmata
NWA – Straight Outta Compton
Pailhead – I Will Refuse
Bad Brains – I Against I
New Order – True Faith
Trenchmouth – Snakebite and Sibera 7″
Flea Circus – Disaligned
Sludgeworth – You and I
Naked Raygun – Treason
Public Enemy – Bring the Noise
The KLF – Justified and Ancient
Depeche Mode – Strangelove
The Cure – Just Like Heaven
Happy Mondays – 24 Hour Party People
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Napalm Death – Scum (Full Album… it’s like 34 minutes of your life give it a chance)
Nuclear Assault – Critical Mass
Lastly, Just a shout out to the legendary Frankie Knuckles who passed away in 2014. Without him, there would be no house music, which means there’d be no Medusa’s, no New Order, no Happy Mondays (for better or worse) and Chicago would be a much more depressing place to grow up in the 1980’s.