me, robbie little (foxy), and jeff van camp
pam and me
blue and i
below is a written piece by jacob arnold recently published in resident advisor and reposted here. jacob was even kind enough to quote me a couple of times.
it seems well researched and quotes many of the key players involved in the creation and sustenance of a 10 year dance hall that seemed to become iconoclastic in chicago culture of the 80’s and 90’s. it was opened on a shoestring budget in a dusty lakewiew neighborhood in 1983, quickly rose to the “gotta do” list, welcomed the underage population and gave them a peek into adulthood and modern culture, and provided a space for very different subcultures to mix, mingle, share, and gain respect for one another. and the music was legendary. i have posted a vid in case you would like to listen while you read… :O
music crossover was a big part of the scene, but so were fashion, ideals, artisitic expression, and sexual preference. in those days, all these cultural idiosyncracies had remained isolated for the most part. but the sheffield shake shack let loose our mortal coils and many young chicagoans became one culture, one club, one people. it changed my world forever.
i got to speak with jacob arnold for about an hour on a saturday morning in july 2013. it is the 30th anniversary of medusa’s opening in october 2013. 30 years is quite a stretch of time. it was a pleasure to look back to those days with a fresh eye. i remember scraping old paint off the ceiling beams and helping paint the bazooka pink that the club remained for several years. i remember the guy named marshall who was staying in the basement via the landlord and set the building on fire with his space heater. it was a friday night and we had to close the place. i sat on the stoop with my friend sue anderson and watched some snow flakes fly. marshall’s cat (and only friend) didn’t make it from the blaze. it was certainly an emotional night.
there are so many golden memories from those years i had at medusa’s. in the space of 4 years, my life evolved what seemed decades. one big key to the club’s success that did not get mentioned in jacob’s article was the influence of billy miller. he coordinated most of the performance art pieces and many art shows that happened throughout the club on many floors. billy was insane and wonderful and a free-thinker. he reveled in the absurd and his joy infected the way we operated on a weekly basis. he remains to this day a handler and marketer of artists and their work. i can’t even type his name without smiling.
i hope you enjoy jacob’s work here. the 1980’s were definitely a time of renaissance for us. the culture shifted and technology infused itself into our work and our play lives. our world became at once larger and more connected at the same time.
Jacob Arnold explains how a little-known teen club for weirdos came to make a deep social and musical impact on Chicago’s scene.
There are a handful of American dance clubs from the 1980s—the Paradise Garage, the Warehouse, the Muzic Box—whose names have become synonymous with underground music. Then there are those whose impact has gone unacknowledged. Medusa’s, a Chicago teen club that opened after the Warehouse closed, inspired an entire generation of dance music producers, from mainstream figures like Tommie Sunshine and Kaskade to underground artists like Hieroglyphic Being. It was a place where leather-clad industrial music fans rubbed shoulders with preppie house music jackers, shaping both genres in the process.
The club was founded 30 years ago this October by David “Medusa” Shelton, an energetic party promoter nicknamed for his curly blond locks. I first met Shelton on a foggy summer night at his latest club, out in the western suburb of Elgin. After ascending a steep stairway past noisy teens and velvet ropes, Shelton guided me through an airport-themed lobby to a dark, mostly empty lounge where three women in fishnet stockings go-go danced on the bar. We took a shortcut through a fire exit and a brightly lit back stairway before weaving through the crowded dance floor, eventually arriving in a shabby back office with an enormous oil painting of Liberace leaning against the wall. Shelton wore a sweatshirt and skinny jeans, his frosted hair artfully arranged above his tan face.
Shelton grew up in Elgin, but quickly found an escape. “In my early days of clubbing, I actually lived in Hawaii for a while,” he says. “That was part of the whole glam rock period.” In Waikiki he and a group of fellow beach bums danced at hula bars and discos that “went kind of gay and mixed—bi-sex—all the whole mix. We helped transform that island a little bit, I think.”
Medusa’s roots lie in the Warehouse, the club that inspired the name “house music.” Returning to Chicago around 1977 to work at United Airlines, Shelton wasn’t happy with the music scene until hearing Frankie Knuckles at Robert Williams’ afterhours club. Shelton found the Warehouse concept intriguing. “I learned a lot from [Williams],” he says. “He taught me how to do all the not-for-profit stuff.”
In fact, Shelton threw his first event at the Warehouse, March 17, 1979 calling it Men In Progress, with Frankie Knuckles as DJ. He then threw a series of “hit and run” parties at established discos throughout Chicago, including the Bistro and Coconuts. In October 1980, inspired by the Warehouse, Shelton founded his first afterhours club, 161 West, on Harrison Street near the Loop. Knuckles played there for a series of Friday night costume parties. A print ad for the club describes dancers “jacking their bodies all night.” Williams evidently saw the club as competition, writing a pointed letter to Gay Life in December declaring, “[161 West] is not the first after hours club of its kind… and also not the first to offer top name entertainment to its clientele.”
“He really didn’t like me and Frankie together, and I know and I get it now,” explains Shelton. According to Shelton, Williams briefly considered moving the Warehouse to 161 West, but ultimately Knuckles left to start his own club, the Power Plant. At the end of his letter, Williams graciously described 161 West as “our sister club.”
Shelton picked 161 West Harrison Street for its water tower and rooftop views, but he soon discovered the windows steamed up when the party was packed. Shelton says his lease was doomed as soon as the building owner realized it was “a black crowd, and it was this wild club.” A year later, he was forced to relocate.
Shelton recalls the day he discovered the site for Medusa’s, at 3257 North Sheffield. He was walking by when he saw a “for rent” sign in the window. “I rented it that day not knowing anything about licensing, neighborhood issues, nothing!” The building was an old Independent Order Of Vikings lodge before becoming home to one of William Russo’s experimental Free Theater companies in the early ’70s.
According to Gay Life, the club’s first night, Saturday 22 October, 1983 was an invitation-only affair. At first, Shelton employed a rotating cast of local DJs, including Frank Lipomi, Mark Hultmark, Michael Graber, Mark Vallese and Kasey Crabtree. Then he began to focus on two: Bud Sweet, who was known for playing “modern” or “new” music at Neo’s, and Mark Stephens, a 29-year-old former manager at Sears, who Gay Chicago once named DJ of the year.
Greg “Blue” Pittsley, a close friend of Shelton, worked at Medusa’s and became the club’s manager. He explains that even though Sweet and Stephens started as DJs with completely different styles, they “began influencing each other and their tastes in music,” and soon were spinning records he never would have expected, from electro to industrial to New Wave. “All of a sudden we had a full dance floor Friday and Saturday,” Pittsley says.
The rise of Medusa’s coincided with the rise of Wax Trax! Records, a label founded by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. In 1978, the couple opened a record store on Chicago’s North Side. Their label’s first releases were Strike Under’s “Immediate Action,” Divine’s “Born To Be Cheap” and Ministry’s first single, “I’m Falling,” all in 1981. By the time Medusa’s opened, Wax Trax! Records was introducing Belgian industrial group Front 242 to the US.
Mark Stephens’ playlist for June 28, 1984 (as recorded inGay Chicago magazine) ranges from Midwestern pop stars Prince and Loleatta Holloway to budding house artist Jesse Saunders’ “Funk U Up.” Mix tapes from 1985 demonstrate a shift to darker fare, including Ministry’s “All Day,” Portion Control’s “The Great Divide,” Anne Clark’s “Our Darkness,” Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and Vicious Pink’s “Cccan’t You See.” Mark Stephens “could play everything, and he could mix it seamlessly… but his strength was really programming. He knew how to make a dance floor move,” Teri Bristol, a fellow Chicago DJ, recalls. “He was like James Dean kind of cool—just sort of like a natural cool guy, and people were so drawn to him.”
Teri Bristol soon began spinning at Medusa’s, too. “[Stephens] took me under his wing and mentored me,” she says. At one point DJs Bristol, Stephens and Psychobitch all lived in rooms at the club, as did Shelton. Asked for signature tracks, Bristol immediately cites the Wax Trax! singles “I Will Refuse” by Pailhead and “Everyday Is Halloween” by Ministry, admitting she would play “pretty much anything by Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb.” Surprisingly she also mentions the early hip-hop/electro cut “Watch The Closing Doors” by I.R.T., which house DJs Ron Hardy and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk were also known to play.
At the time, with popular sounds like post-punk and post-disco, boundaries between genres were fuzzy. In the June 19, 1982 issue of Billboard, Cary Darling notes that Kraftwerk was getting “massive R&B and dance play” across the US and so-called “new music,” a somewhat more accessible version of new wave, was “spurring renewed interest in 12-inch singles and EPs and providing crossover material” for clubs and radio.
In 1984, Medusa’s began to host live performances, including ESG and Violent Femmes. In September, a Ministry show was followed the next week by Front 242’s first US appearance. “It was a roar of machines and the hammering of a thousand boots jumping up and down,” Smart Bar and Metro owner Joe Shanahan told Spin.