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An oral history of the Empty Bottle

Staff members and musicians share stories of the venerable nightclub in this excerpt from The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing.


"To this day, I think about how I’ve never seen a bumper sticker that says respect your bartender at any other bar," says Empty Bottle bartender Bruce Lamont. - CLAYTON HAUCK
  • Clayton Hauck
  • "To this day, I think about how I’ve never seen a bumper sticker that says respect your bartender at any other bar," says Empty Bottle bartender Bruce Lamont.

Almost no one remembers where the Empty Bottle started: 935 N. Western, currently home to the Ukrainian Village dive Stella's Sports Bar. Owner Bruce Finkelman hosted one (and only one) show there in 1992, the bill for which featured the Coctails, a 90s Chicago staple fronted by Archer Prewitt. The landlord quickly put a stop to Finkelman's plans for future live shows in the space, so the ambitious promoter began looking for a new venue—but he didn't go far. On October 19, 1993, the Empty Bottle reopened just a block north, in the former Friendly Inn at 1035 N. Western.


That address, for thousands of current and former Chicagoans of a certain age, is considered sacred ground. This owes mostly to the fact that the nightclub at that location is imbued with innumerable memories: of experiencing great bands on the verge of stardom, of youthful nights of drunken revelry, of endearingly bad plumbing. Writer John E. Dugan spent the last two years recording many of those reminiscences—from dozens of subjects, including employees, band members, regulars, publicists, and journalists (Reader staff and contributors among them). He's compiled the best stories, several of which are excerpted below, into The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a 200-page oral history that local indie publisher Curbside Splendor is set to release in June. (The book's subtitle references the words on the canopy over the club's front door.)

"I came away [from researching the book] thinking a lot about memory and moments. Why did we hold on to one memory from the Bottle?" says Dugan, a Reader contributor who's no stranger to the venue, having played there in the 90s as the drummer for Chisel and later as a member of Perfect Panther, the Tax, and Chicago Stone Lightning Band. "Some of the most indelible nights of our lives are spent in these places, so is there anything to it beyond cheap drinks and really loud music? What else is there? Community? It's odd to think that this is where we go searching for the sublime, but a lot of us do." Jake Malooley

"Some people didn't like how the Empty Bottle treated bands," Bobby Conn says. "I always thought it was the best deal." - ROBERT LOERZEL
  • Robert Loerzel
  • "Some people didn't like how the Empty Bottle treated bands," Bobby Conn says. "I always thought it was the best deal."

Bobby Conn | Bobby Conn & the Glass Gypsies

CONDUCENT WAS A BAND that existed only because we couldn't make a demo tape. We tried to play at Lounge Ax, but our shit was too fucking obnoxious for anyone to want to listen to. We played open mics, we played at the Gallery Cabaret. They had to let you play your three songs if you signed up on the list. That was in the late 90s. Empty Bottle opened in 1993, but there weren't that many shows at first. What I loved about it was that it was walkable from my house. Empty Bottle was so close.

Some people didn't like how the Empty Bottle treated bands. I always thought it was the best deal. The production cost was really low and the bands got all the door. So if you could bring in a couple hundred people, you'd make a shit ton of money and they'd take a tiny cut. Whereas the production costs at the Metro are way, way higher. Before E2 [the Chicago nightclub where a stampede killed 22 people in 2003] happened, a sold-out crowd at the Bottle might be 400 people. It might be insane. You could make thousands of dollars on a $10 ticket. That was always really cool.

The first show where I felt like, "Holy shit, there's a lot of people here," was a show we played opening for U.S. Maple. I was really into Jesus at that point. I built a cross that was ten feet high. There was a beautiful man looking down sort of sorrowfully at the crowd from his perch. It was this grotesque caricature, this dichotomy between this nasty little man—me—and this beautiful Jesus looking down on him. You could do stuff like that without people saying, "Oh, that's going to be too much trouble."

That's kind of the magic of it. My friend did a dance performance. Greg Jacobsen and I were the dancers. I was wearing these pleather jeans that were way too tight and I don't wear underwear. The whole inseam went about five minutes into the thing and there was another 15 minutes of the performance. Lots of nonsense.

You could do dumb stuff. I brought smoke machines in and strobe lights. I made whole landscape sets. I'd coat the stage with polywrap and get messy with fluids. You can do that there if you clean up.

My wife has this theory that everyone has their Paris in the 20s. It's not really Paris that's the magic. Wherever you were in your 20s, that's the magic. That's the time you have the energy and inspiration to go out and do weird shit. CBGB had their Paris in the 20s. It's not really the place. It's everyone making it happen there.

Jay Ryan | Bird Machine, Dianogah, Hubcap

WHILE I WAS IN SCHOOL in Champaign, all these bands were getting signed to majors, post-Nirvana. We had Hum, Menthol, Hardvark, Poster Children, and Love Cup. I was in a band called Hubcap, and I think that was the first time I played at the Bottle, probably the summer of 1994. I finished school and moved to Chicago and started a new band called Dianogah. For a few years, the Empty Bottle was our home base. We were playing there every six weeks or so as the opening band for whenever someone unusual was coming through. We were the easy access opening band that would play for 75 bucks.

We opened for Uzeda, Bedhead, and Chisel in 1996. Within a couple days of returning from our first east-coast tour, we opened for Sebadoh at the Vic, because somebody asked Bruce who should open. We were total nincompoops at that point. He was trying to tack us on a lot of things.

I worked there in the office, 1996 to '97, answering phones during the day, letting the delivery guy in. It was a daytime job. I got this one package from Lifter Puller and I just remember labeling it as "auto body shop rock" and giving it a thumbs down. In hindsight, I was a dumb-ass kid. I should have been paying better attention.

From 1997 to '98, I lived there, first above [neighboring restaurant] Bite and then above the billiard room of the Bottle. Rent was cheap. I never minded living above a rock club; the noise of a show never bothered me. Sunday nights the Deadly Dragon System would play louder than other acts on other nights. It would let out at one in the morning. I'd lean out my window and talk to my friends as they came out. The loudest part was the trucks rolling down Western Avenue at three or four in the morning, all the semis coming into the city.

For bands operating on our level, something like the Empty Bottle—a 300-capacity club—is the best. Getting to the Bottle or the Lounge Ax meant knowing you weren't going to get screwed. It wasn't a competition between the band and the bar. You were given beer, you were given food, there was room to sit in the basement, and you were treated well.

Beatle Bob and friends at the Empty Bottle on New Year's Eve 1999 - MARTY PEREZ
  • Marty Perez
  • Beatle Bob and friends at the Empty Bottle on New Year's Eve 1999

Brad Wood | co-owner of Idful Music, the now-defunct Wicker Park studio where the likes of Liz Phair, Tortoise, and Veruca Salt recorded

IN 1994, RED RED MEAT was playing the first annual Empty Bottle Prom, and I had just arrived with two old friends from my hometown who I hadn't seen in years. What better way to welcome my friends from Rockford than to subject them to Red Red Meat in drag playing cover songs with a crowd dressed in thrift store tuxedos and taffeta? It was a disorienting, glorious racket—par for the course for RRM—but within minutes I spotted a woman across the room with a martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She had huge eyes and an even bigger smile. She was thoroughly engaged with the friends she was with and seemed to be ignoring the racket onstage. I watched her take a drag, take a sip, laugh, repeat. I asked Sarah [Staskauskas], the bartender, who she was, and armed with the info I was given, proceeded to mangle my attempt to impress her at the bar. I asked what her name was: Maria. She asked what I do. She told me she didn't date musicians. I said, "I'm actually more of a businessman." No response. I asked for a phone number. She rolled her eyes and spun away. Well played, Casanova. The rest of the night was a blur of Carpenters covers and beer and furtive glances toward this beautiful and unapproachable woman. Somewhere between the end of Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, I was able to call her and ask her out. We went to see Big Star at the Metro, but she had me that first night at the Empty Bottle. Maria and I celebrated 20 years married this year, and she still looks amazing with a martini and a cigarette in hand.

Alianna Kalabba | We Ragazzi

AT ONE WE RAGAZZI SHOW at the Empty Bottle, we set up a kissing booth. It seemed like a great idea and everyone had a grand time smooching throughout the night. But kisses for a dollar and too much alcohol aren't a good mix, and I remember couples arguing and feelings being hurt by so-and-so kissing so-and-so, and why did they want to kiss so-and-so? Thus, the kissing booth would never return to any future We Ragazzi shows.

Another time at the end of a feisty We Ragazzi show, Tony threw his guitar my way and hit me in the head. Not fun. Was it the excitement, or were we angry at each other? Most likely it was a bit of both. Mike Lust always commented that he liked watching us play because Tony [Rolando, We Ragazzi singer and guitarist] and I would always be snarling at each other, and it came out in the music.

Brian Case (far right), circa late 90s, at the Empty Bottle - CLAIRE MOONEY
  • Claire Mooney
  • Brian Case (far right), circa late 90s, at the Empty Bottle

Brian Case | 90 Day Men, the Ponys, Disappears, Acteurs

THE FIRST NIGHT WAS in the fall of 1996. I think it was a Wednesday—90 Day Men, Boys Life, and C-Clamp, which was a huge show to be on at the time. I think only a hundred or so people showed up but we were so excited to be playing the Bottle. It was really early in the band—Rob was playing keyboard and clarinet, and Chandler was still on bass. I was 19.

What really makes the Bottle special is the people that work there. There's a respect for what's happening there between the artists and the staff. I love that it's the same as it's been since the 90s. It's a rock club with no other ambition than being a rock club, and that goes a long way these days.

It's positioned in an area that's arguably the epicenter of the music being made in Chicago for the last 20 years, staffed by the people making it, and booked by the people absorbing it. And the Bottle grew as Ukrainian Village grew. It didn't just come in after the neighborhood was "safe."

I met my wife there, most of my friends, too. I was there on my 21st birthday with my dad. Bruce [Finkelman] pulled us aside and shook my dad's hand and said something like, "Your son has been coming here for three years underage, we like him a lot, but now it's time to pay," and he gave me a warm, brown pint glass and told me to shoot it. I did, my dad left, and I spent the rest of the night blacked out, throwing up at the bar during a sold-out Bow Wow Wow show. Youth. Or the end of it.

I feel like Lustre King was the first true Empty Bottle band. They lived in the neighborhood, worked there. Craig [Ackerman, Lustre King bassist] even lived upstairs. They sounded like Chicago to me at that time. After Lounge Ax closed, all those shows moved over to the Bottle and things changed. It got way busier with national acts. They were really the only room that could fill the gap that Lounge Ax left.

  • Tyler Curtis

Damian Kulash | OK Go

I MOVED TO CHICAGO right after college in 1998. [OK Go members] Tim [Nordwind], Andy [Ross], and Dan [Konopka] had been living in Chicago for the duration of their college years, so they knew more about the scene than I did, and they were friends of mine from earlier in life. When I got to Chicago they were sort of my road map to the city, culturally and musically. They had been seeing shows at the Bottle forever. Pretty quickly the musical world of Chicago became my social scene, and I was amazed at how supportive it was. It seemed like every single person I met was in a band, and all of them went to everyone else's shows.

We played the New Year's Eve show in 2001. When you're playing your own show, it's fine, it's your job to win people over. But when you're playing New Year's Eve, everyone has to be amused. You can't have just some people enjoying it. So we decided we would do a whole set of covers that were total crowd pleasers. So there were three sets that night. We opened as OK Go, then the Lonesome Organist played, and then we came back and played covers for an hour and a half. It was the most money we had ever been offered, at that point, to play a show. They had offered us a door deal or something like that, but it was $2,000 to $3,000 over anything we had ever been offered to play a show before. We took the entire sum of it and rented stage equipment, lasers, bubble machines, and foggers. Basically, we filled the stage with these absurd machines that we didn't really even know how to use and just tried to have the most arena-like show you could possibly have. It was a lot of fun. We played "The Boys Are Back in Town," and I feel like you're not an asshole for trying to cover that. But it's pretty rare that I hear someone cover Prince. Like, dude, you're not allowed to do that. We played "Under Pressure," and I now wonder if that was a good idea. I'm sure we did not do it justice.

Allison Hollihan | Atombombpocketknife, Empty Bottle staff 1996-2009

ONE OF MY EARLIEST MEMORIES of the Bottle was when the Mono Men played their final two shows there in November 1995. The guy who runs [the record label] Estrus had a good relationship with Finkelman at the time. When he lost all his records in a huge fire, the Bottle did Bottle Shock—a benefit for Estrus. Because of that relationship, they did their final shows at the Bottle. Everyone was throwing bottles, not cans, at the band at the end of their show. Bruce was very concerned and worried and angry about it. At the end, the stage was covered in broken glass and everything was trashed. That was a lot of fun.

Melisa Young | Kid Sister

I LOVE THE EMPTY BOTTLE a lot. I can remember being too young to see shows there and being super bummed about it. Then, many years later, I was making music of my own and hoping one day to play there. Much to my surprise, I made my first money ever on that stage, a hundred bucks, opening for a group I just adored. They had me back a few months later and I made a few hundred more bucks. I was overjoyed. My cousin Pancakes came to that show and took her boots off because her feet hurt and she walked around in her white crew socks and pleather pants all night. We drank beers and danced. Pieces of the ceiling fell on my friends' heads that night, and one of them wrote about it in the Reader.

I went on a date there once and it was awkward. We ate at Bite. I think it was because he was vegan and I've never met a steak I didn't like. Anyhow, I can only remember little bits and pieces like this, little floating memories. I think it's because I was always having such a good time, just being young and running around and wildin' out.

“Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman pulled us aside and shook my dad’s hand and said something like, ‘Your son has been coming here for three years underage, we like him a lot, but now it’s time to pay.’ ”

—Brian Case, 90 Day Men, the Ponys, Disappears, Acteurs­

Bruce Lamont | Empty Bottle bartender 2004-present, Yakuza, Led Zeppelin 2, Bloodiest, Corrections House

LATE 1995 OR '96 was the first time I played there. Mike Tsoulos was trying to get me a job there from 1996 until late 2003. Finally one night after playing a show, Finkelman talked to me about working there, and he walked up to Mike and said, "I like this guy, Bruce Lamont." And he says, "I've been trying to get him a job here for seven years." I got hired in March 2004, and I've been there almost 11 years.

I was definitely a Ken Vandermark groupie back then. I was so happy to find someone I could relate to musically on so many levels. They played at the Bottle every Tuesday. It was great just watching it kind of become a thing. It was pretty badass. All of a sudden the BBC comes out to recognize this killer Chicago underground improvisational community. That's pretty sick. I was proud. We had signs we would put out during those shows to shush people because that music could get pretty quiet. I would work there on those nights and say, "I understand if you want to come here and drink, but you need to sit and pay attention or go in the poolroom. Be respectful of what's happening on the stage."

I loved the place pretty much from the first day I walked in. To this day, I think about how I've never seen a bumper sticker that says respect your bartender at any other bar. I've been bartending in Chicago for 22 years, and early on in my days of slinging drinks I just thought that was the coolest thing. I thought this would be the baddest place to work because the owner allows this thing to say respect your bartender, and it's still up and it's not a cocky thing. I've worked for bosses who argue that the customer is always right, but here was the owner saying, "Not always." I wanted to work there just because of that. To me, it's by far my favorite club in the world. And after traveling a lot of years and seeing other places, it's still home. I played there last night. I love it. It's home.

Guided By Voices and the Strokes performed. They played until two in the morning. I think Bob Pollard had just gotten separated or divorced, and he pulled a stripper on stage and said, "This is my new girlfriend, she's going to dance for you." So some clothes came off. Then one guitarist had a full Marshall stack and was drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel's, and you saw his eyes kind of flutter and he just fell back and hit the top cabinet and the amp. Someone plopped down the stairs to get to the stage and they brought him back up and the amp made it back up. That shit was fucking chaos. That shit was nuts.

I did chuck a monitor off the stage once at a private event. A friend gave us all a bunch of mushrooms, so I ended up throwing a monitor off the stage during the set and then apologized to the owner of the monitor because he was standing at the bar. This was like day two of the new floor. I was opposed to that new floor anyway. I always oppose any upgrades in the bar. Just leave it as is. Plus, that old floor resonated. The sound reverberated on that floor really nicely.

I'm a big music dork. I worked in record stores before, and that's why I gravitated here. As long as I've worked there I've tried to contribute to that spirit, in a sense. Everyone that works there is really hardcore about music and art, so the only time there's a complaint is the nights where it's sort of generic bands. Not to sound elitist, but you could go anywhere for that stuff.

For $20 you could basically kiss your night goodbye with our cheap drinks. I was a buyer here for seven years. I remember Bruce was very adamant about keeping the prices down. He would compare prices with the Rainbo, even though they weren't a music club. No one ever complained about a drink price. That's rare.

I don't smoke cigarettes, so when everyone else takes five I go sit in with the bands. The time with Black Lips I got in deep shit because I didn't clear it with Bruce. I was managing the bar and I was like, "OK, I'll be back in eight minutes." I was doing the first two songs and I went in the back and I was just kind of warming up, and he comes back and is like, "What the fuck are you doing?" And Cole [Alexander] was like, "He's going to play with us." Bruce was like, "No, he's not. Let's go." And he pulled me back to the bar and was like, "You're not playing with them." And I was like, "What the hell?" And he's like, "We're fucking slammed." And then literally as they're hitting their first note, he's like, "Go," and I had to run through the whole crowd with my saxophone.

"Basically, I had permission to play the Empty Bottle as a teenager because I didn’t drink," says Miss Alex White of Hot Machines and White Mystery. - C. ANDERSON
  • C. Anderson
  • "Basically, I had permission to play the Empty Bottle as a teenager because I didn’t drink," says Miss Alex White of Hot Machines and White Mystery.

Miss Alex White | Hot Machines, White Mystery

WHEN I WAS ABOUT 13 years old, I started playing guitar. I quickly discovered I liked playing with other people and started playing in bands—basement shows, backyards, literally garages—up here on the north side and around the city. I'm a city kid. When I was a teenager in high school, I was "discovered" while playing in a basement where some adults stumbled upon the show. It ended up being Matt Williams, who tends bar at the Bottle, and the photographer Chris Anderson. They saw this band I was playing in called the Red Lights and invited us to play our first professional gig. I was 17 when I started playing with Matt in a band called the Hot Machines, and we went on to play a lot of shows at the Bottle.

I also played in a band which was my name, Miss Alex White. One iteration was with my best friend Chris [Saathoff], who was killed one night after leaving the Empty Bottle. He was my bandmate, my best friend, and my label partner. He passed away the night of February 13, 2004. We were at a Ponys show.

His nickname was "Chris Playboy," because like a lot of people that hung out at the Empty Bottle, he worked at Playboy downtown. That was a devastating for me. He was leaving the Empty Bottle, crossing the street. He got hit by a car and dragged. We had a lot of events at the Bottle commemorating his life, annual benefit shows we organized.

I was still a tender teen at that time. Basically, I had permission to play there because I didn't drink. I was so riveted by the opportunity to actually go to shows and play shows at the Bottle that I was extremely respectful of that. I really appreciate that they allowed me to do that.

Mike Gebel | Empty Bottle 2009-present, current head talent buyer

I DECIDED TO QUIT a decent-paying job at the Twin Cities alt-weekly City Pages as an advertising account manager after 13 months, near the end of the Great Recession, to try and go promote bands, either in New York or Chicago. I slept on my brother's couch in his studio apartment in Lincoln Park, got a job as a dog walker, and ended up getting internships at the Bottle and the Windish Agency. We moved to a coach house in Bucktown. After a few months of interning once or twice a week at the Bottle and working a few Empty Bottle Presents shows, including two wrestling events, I got to start working the door and doing lights a few times a week.

There have been some absolutely insane shows. The one that stands out most was Skeletonwitch in 2011. The pit stretched almost all the way to the bar because 30 or 40 people were going out of their fucking minds. I was providing "security" on the edge of the pit near the stairs and my coworker A.J. grabbed me and yelled in my ear, "So we're just gonna let 'em beat the shit out of each other, right?" I shouted back, "I think that's all we can do." Luckily no one was hurt, but one guy got on stage, sprinted across, and did a flip into the part of the audience that wanted no part of the pit. Everyone moved but one girl, and he landed on her. She was irate and started punching him! I think [Empty Bottle doorman] Bob Johnson said it was the wildest show he'd seen there. v

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