35 years ago

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In a galaxy far far away….. some friends got together and cleaned up a vintage Swedish Music Hall in Lakeview Chicago. They begged, borrowed, scraped, scrubbed, painted and nailed until one day the work was done. It was then that they created a flyer and sent out invitations to come to the next “big” thing (we hoped) in the way of after hours clubs.

The music hall (dubbed Medusa’s Music Hall) took on a life of her own. It was a champagne supernova. It crossed the sky and left an indelible mark on a few generations’ hearts in Chicago and the North Shore.

In the last 5 years, I have been approached 3 separate times by writers (some of whom are former clubbers) who have continued to hear the fairy tales and fables that have circulated about the life and times of the Sheffield Shake Shack knows as Medusa’s.

mark stephens

I met a guy named Mark Stephens in 1978 or so when I was bartending at a French Seafood Restaurant in the Belmont Hotel on Sheridan Road. He lived on Pine Grove which was directly behind the back of the hotel and we stopped by his apartment often. Mark was a DJ in training and was working as a bartender in a gay bar at the time. It was a quiet neighborhood place called “The Bushes” and not a disco boom boom room.

Mark and I became fast friends. He was very interested in all types of music and we used to go to shows together. Sometimes 3 and 4 a week. Let’s see- We saw Bauhaus, Clash, Pretenders, Bow Wow Wow, Rachel Sweet, Blondie, B-52’s, Gang of Four, Stray Cats, Grace Jones just to name a few. It was a rockin friendship. We discovered rap music together, relished the stories of NYC where doing the “Rock” was the only dance that could be done cuz the clubs were so crowded. We boogied to Grand Master Flash, The Sequence,  The Sugar Hill Gang, Afrika Bambaata, Malcolm Mclaren. We welcomed the New Wave of Brit Pop that was washing onshore.

His roommate was named Bob Anderson and he was a waiter at Kaplan’s in Water Tower as well as a former design student and decorative painter with an acerbic sense of humor and a remarkably memorable laugh. Bob was friends with a guy named Medusa and his friends Blue and Nealina. Soon the Mark/Rod friendship morphed into a group friendship that taught me lessons about treating others with dignity and compassion that I carry with me to this day.

I went to several really seedy After Hours Parties over the next couple of years and I began to drink the Medusa KoolAid that opening a North Side late night joint could be a gift to our community. Dave (Medusa) found his dream in late 1992. He finally got the lease and the actualizing began.

The first few weeks it was really just another gay late night dance place. I remember pleading with Dave to start playing something other than gay dance music. I had been doing laps in the alternative music scene for a few years and couldn’t see myself going backward. The alternative scene was mysterious, underground, and not yet clearly defined. This was exciting. It was really exciting. I took a really big big bite.

Mark became the house DJ for Saturday nights. After some stop and starts with alternative spinners, Bud Sweet took the helm on Friday nights. Initially they had distinctive styles, but after some months their individual sounds merged and the “Medusa” sound was born. It became a signature and lasted for years.

I already had a substance use problem at the beginning of this shake shack journey, but the onset of HIV into the gay men’s communities took the lives of my dear friends and turned the lives of other friends on its ear. My dearest friend Paul passed in 1985 just one month after I seroconverted. Many young men that frequented the club were in the same boat and we had no idea which way to row. Medusas weekend after hours parties became the most visible lighthouse. I followed hoping I would find dry land.

Mark became a Billboard reporter. He was getting guest spots around town and starting to move beyond his days of struggle (or so it seemed). He and I began to have different priorities and interests and we drifted. Mark passed away in 1989 or so. He had tested positive in 1986 just after my diagnosis. He was in Japan doing a guest spot at a club and passed out in the booth there. He came home to Chicago and retired.

I also shut down emotionally during this time. I tested my liver, and I abused my sinuses. I lost touch with a healthy will to live and I spun out of control. In 1986 I left Chicago for the West Coast. It was my first geographical move to stop using and it didn’t work. I left a massive part of my heart in Chicago. The last year was laced with pain, guilt, fear, and regret so it took many years for me to find the courage to connect with my former life.

So it is funny that I spent 45 minutes on the phone today speaking with a reporter  for “Chicago Magazine” about the construction and creation of this very alternative cultural icon that remains memorable and poignant to so many of my generation 35 years later.  I chatted, remembered, and my heart opened once again. The friends I made then are all still connected to me on FB. We stay connected and we share a sensibility as well as this rich shared history.

Medusa’s was the club for misfits. It was the “others” rule. Fags, Dikes, Freaks, Skinheads, Blacks, Hispanics, Geeks, Goths were the prom king and queens of that dance floor.  We were all assembled in crowd formation throughout the 3 floors of bubble gum pink clubland. Art, Fashion, Literature, Painting, Performance, Music, and Dance were the ways we soothed our muses.

Those of us still here have grown up and moved on. Yet somewhere inside is this glorious memory of validation for being different. Almost everybody I know really got it. We were not ordinary and that was the point of living. We must still love that feeling and hold it dear. And we must read “Chicago Magazine” at this point in our lives. I’m pretty sure I’ll read the issue that contains Mike Foster’s article about Medusa’s.

“The Love I Meant To Say”

Over, I can’t believe it’s over I can’t believe the love I’ve left To show some other dayListen, I hope that you can hear me As I kneel down and pray With the love I meant to sayShadows, you took away the shadows Before you, life was black and white Though tonight the room’s gone gray

Golden, all the love you gave was golden Gold that I would gladly pay, To show the love I meant to say

Oh, music you made me hear, such music Without you here to guide me, I fear my soul will fly away

Sorry, that’s the word I want to sing to you The other word is “Stay” To hear the love I meant to say

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