It's Time to Make a Clean Break With Ronny's | Bleader

It's Time to Make a Clean Break With Ronny's

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On Saturday I went to Pancho's, a Latin American restaurant and bar on California, to see White Mystery, Loose Dudes, and the Pink Torpedoes. The show had been moved from Ronny's, which was shut down the previous weekend and supposedly won't open again till it gets right with the city. Pancho's is two blocks north of Ronny's, and it's hosting Ronny's shows that were already booked when the plug got pulled—so far its schedule runs through the end of November. As I walked to Pancho's, I wondered if it could possibly be a worse place to see music than Ronny's.

Maybe there would be gaping holes in the floor so you could fall and break your legs in the basement. Maybe the bartenders would coldcock you with brass knuckles if you tried ordering a drink. Maybe it would smell like the Angel of Death's farts. Maybe the room would make the bands sound like they were playing in a collapsed Chilean mine. Maybe every act that had the misfortune to get booked there would show up for the first time and decide on the spot to call it quits and go back to school for their MBAs.

In reality Pancho's is nowhere near as bad as Ronny's. It was actually a fine place to watch Loose Dudes blast through their skatecore originals and Halloween covers (they did all four songs from Black Flag's Nervous Breakdown EP). The sound was decent, the smells were no worse than at the average house show, and the atmosphere of the place—unlike at Ronny's—wasn't so dire that it made Last Exit to Brooklyn feel like an Up With People number. It was kinda like in elementary school, when you'd get a substitute teacher who seemed cooler, nicer, and more knowledgeable than the one you were usually stuck with.

Which leads me to a painful but inevitable conclusion: Ronny's shouldn't start having shows again. If MP Productions is going to go through the trouble of properly licensing a finding a properly licensed small venue, it should be a different one shouldn't just be Ronny's with a PPA. The Chicago music scene, and the people who support it, deserve better.

This is by no means a knock on the people who booked at Ronny's, did sound there, paid the bands, and so on. They tried their best to make it work—and I did have some good times at the place, both playing shows and watching them. But the phrase "polishing a turd" seems pertinent (especially since at Ronny's you could often catch a powerful whiff of something that smelled a lot like the additive in natural gas). If there's a chance to find a better venue, like Pancho's—a place with better sound, better smells, and a friendlier bar staff—all the more reason to leave Ronny's behind.

My point isn't to say, "This just in: Ronny's is a shithole!" And if you played there, drank there, or watched bands there, you don't need to hear it. And I loathe the hackneyed fake-blue-collar corollary to that, which says, "This bar is a dump and is therefore amazing and more real." Maybe Algren and Royko would've loved sitting at Ronny's amid the hipster trash and neighborhood drunks—and to be sure, you don't get that kind of witty-gritty repartee at the T.G.I. Friday's bar in the Woodfield Mall. But if you spend enough quality time in places like these, the romanticism fades away. It's just alcoholics yammering about nothing.

Ronny's has served as a reminder of the void left behind when the Fireside Bowl stopped being a regular all-ages venue—a void that still hasn't been filled. It's embarrassing to me that touring bands played at a place as nasty as Ronny's—who knows how many were left with the impression that that's how things are done in Chicago. I played probably a dozen times there, and after a while I stopped asking my friends to come to the shows, not wanting to subject them to the vile bathrooms, the bartender who screams at you if you play the jukebox (and couldn't give a runny malt-liquor shit about paying customers), and the general pallor of buzz-killing despair. Luckily, in recent years plenty of DIY spaces have cropped up, providing a counterexample to Ronny's—because they aren't businesses, they're free to let passion for music and support for artists override concern about the bottom line. Ronny's became a venue of last resort for bands looking to book tours on short notice, if that. Those two Will Oldham sets in late September were big news precisely because they were so freakishly outside the norm.

I doubt I'm alone in this, but to my eyes it was always pretty obvious that the folks who owned and operated Ronny's didn't really want the bands and their audiences hanging around. Live music, especially live music with limited commercial appeal, ranks somewhere below karaoke and trivia nights on the list of things struggling bars might do to bring in new business.

So now that Ronny's can't do shows, at least for now, it's a good time to move on—especially because Pancho's seems to have potential. The tireless efforts of the folks who struggled to make Ronny's a viable venue deserve respect and appreciation, but I for one won't be sad if the place goes back to being a corner bar whose doorway yuppies and hipsters fear to darken.

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