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Chicago Punk and the 1980s Music Scene

Seamus is a Chicago punk – or doing his goddamndest to be one, so it’d be good to write on this subject here. 

About 12 years ago, I was washing my hands in the bathroom of Kokomo Café on Belmont. I looked above the soap dispenser and saw – what else? – a peevish slogan written in black marker! “Best Joke I Heard All Day: Chicago Has a Punk Scene…”  I was already 24 and had just stopped in for a cappuccino, so I’d reached an age where I could roll my eyes at something so overstated and outdated. I walked back out into the café area and saw the one I knew was the culprit: the snarling, gum-chomping chick with green hair who was comparing her still-moist mini-tatts with the faded behemoths on the arms of the grizzled recovering alkie who by turns looked deep into his coffee cup, which was as murky and impenetrable as his many decades of regret. She didn’t know how silly she looked or sounded, but he did. Not that he could throw stones. He’d done his time at Exit and Neo before she was even born. He took it just as seriously back then. That’s how his life had become one everlasting repair job. Good luck to you, graffiti girl!

It was a common phenomenon. Lots of people on the scene mocked the scene but would no sooner abandon it than oxygen. Seamus expresses these sentiments when he walks into Medusa’s, the place for the under-21 crowd in the ’80s, after seeing Colby for the first time in 85A:

I got off the Howard Line at Belmont and walked to Medusa’s, hoping Colby’d be out of the clink soon so we could make friends and get moving on our London Plans. Once inside the door at Medusa’s, I stood in line—or in the queue, as they call it in England—on the pitch-black stairwell heading up to the main floor, where Granny, the chain-smoking old lady, pats you down. She might be older than God’s own granny and bonier than a skinned fish, but I’ve seen Granny bounce skinheads the size of fuckin’ Appalachia on to the curb. Dudes who’ll mosh with Godzilla know better than to fuck with her. I stood among hordes of punks, skaters, New Wavers, housers, skinheads, trendies, posers of all stripes—every one of them pulling out every fuckin’ stop to show off how many people they all fuckin’ know. I stood all alone, this time thinking, I’d rather be alone than be friends with these assholes.

It took me fifteen minutes in the queue to make it up the stairs, which gave me ample time to look the whole Medusa mob scene up and down. What can I say, it looked fuckin’ pathetic! Most of them probably piled into cars and drove in from the fuckin’ suburbs, where they all play punk the same way little girls play dress-up with dollies. Not a one of them came anywhere close to Colby in coolness. It’s like, on the L at Irving Park, I had a vision of perfection that ruined me for anything I’d ever see again (until I’d see Tressa, that is, and maybe until I see London up close and personal). Granny slid her hands into my pockets and down my sides and legs and let me move on. I paid five bucks admission, looked back down the stairs and sighed so all those fucks could hear it as I walked up to the video room.

For about an hour, I wove through the Rosemary’s Baby meets Teen Steam orgies in the neon rooms, where they blast lavender-scented Spanish fly and Meat Beat Manifesto videos. It was like, all at once, I was walking across two planes of reality. One was the lower plane, where all those freaks are into all that show-off shit, playing up to each other, acting like they all fuckin’ know it all, not letting anyone into their little cliques unless the majority of their clique approves. Then there was another plane. Call it fuckin’ Mount Olympus, where the gods get together. Colby lives on high there. As I walked through the video room, I imagined his friends must live up on Olympus too, or else why would he be hanging out with them? 

Mount Olympus, it’s where people are above all the poses video-room fops strike. It’s where people like Colby got bigger plans for their futures than fucking up their hair and buying twelve inches and test-pressings from bands only a few fucks know about. I thought, Colby and people like him…they do shit like move to other countries and make art and write books and make music, the kind that’s got lots of range and puts lots of styles together, not just this monotonous industrial shit. At least, that’s what I imagine they do. They express their true selves. You can see it on Colby’s face. Not a blemish on it. There’s just that glow rising from his soul. He’s lit from within. He doesn’t feel the need to fuck up his hair. Him and his friends—they’re fuckin’ self-styled. Lots of people wear leather jackets and boots, but, I dunno, not like them. I can’t explain. There was…fuckin’…something about it. I dunno. It was that…fuckin’…Mount Olympus experience. All at once, or, at least in my mind, I was on Mount Olympus and the lower plane, the neon rooms. And I wanted to be way up in the land of the gods and away from that fuckin’ lower plane, the fuckin’ neon rooms.

That’s why I walked out of the video room. From the third floor at Medusa’s, there are no stairs to Olympus—though I hear that, if you blow the DJ, he’ll take you up to the roof and cut you some lines of coke. I figured I’d cut my losses on the five bucks admission and walk back out, past the old lady with her cigarette and the bouncers following her lead. I didn’t expect I’d ever be back, though I also didn’t expect there was any other place for a fuckin’ freak like me to go.

Wish you were part of the ’80s Chicago punk scene? Reading 85A can make you feel like you were there!