Metro Turns 25
story by Chris Castaneda
In what was once a Swedish Community Center built in 1927 now resides one of the most celebrated and respected clubs not only in Chicago, but in the country if not the world. In the case of Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro, it is a place that for 25 years has brought all walks of life together for one common reason: music.
At the age of 50, Shanahan has spent half of his existence on this planet showing up to the same job. During our Friday morning conversation on the past and future of Metro, that point isn’t lost on Shanahan. Once fired from his record store job at the Evergreen Plaza Shopping Center on the city’s South Side for skipping work to see George Harrison in concert, Shanahan now can skip (or stroll) out of Metro’s office, grab a beer, and watch any concert on any given night without ever being told he was ditching his work. In Shanahan’s mind, he is at work.
Today, Shanahan is a pillar in the Chicago music community and has been recognized as one of its strongest defenders. Simply raise the question of Chicago’s place among other “music” cities in the United States and Shanahan doesn’t hold back. “A lot of people have come out and said things like ‘the music scene in this city is just hanging on by its fingernails’, and that is so wrong,” says Shanahan with utter disgust in his voice. “It is so erroneous. That person is not plugged in and does not know what’s going on. It’s so vibrant and so much alive that if you were a part of it, you would know.”
Now, when someone demands you turn your tape recorder back ON after concluding an interview, it should be a good indication that they’re about to say something, really, really good. I wasn’t about to say “no” to a fellow South Sider. That said, what say Mr. Shanahan about some of the current pop-culture obsessions? “‘American Idol’ is a mean-spirited barely karaoke-style television show that makes my stomach turn,” says Shanahan while possibly preparing a baseball bat for action. “And of course the Hannah Montana thing is just even more obscene, especially when we’re talking about the kind of money people are spending for tickets. It shows a bad side of our society, to be really honest. It’s so not right.”
As a kid growing up in the Beverly/Evergreen neighborhood, Shanahan was blind to musical genres; if he thought what he heard was good, then that’s all that mattered. If you consider for a moment that Metro, along with the adjacent SmartBar, has brought DJ Frankie Knuckles, Prince, R.E.M., Tom Jones, Bob Dylan, and the Smashing Pumpkins through its doors, then it is without doubt that Shanahan’s attitude about music continues to give the club its driving force. Shanahan gives credit to his parents for raising him in a house that was filled with a variety of music, not to mention older siblings that arranged mini-sock hops in the garage. “I’d go out there and see all these teenagers dancing to music,” says Shanahan. “At seven or eight years old, I was thinking, ‘That’s cool! I like that! Maybe if I got myself a turntable and some records, maybe I could throw a party.’ I think that’s maybe the genesis of how I became really interested in bringing music to people.”
Spending time between Chicago and New York in the ’70s, Shanahan pulled DJ duties spinning records with friends, working at bars and passing out concert flyers around the clubs. Surrounded by musicians, promoters, and club owners, Shanahan strengthened his knowledge and saw first-hand the mistakes that could be made when it came to running a club. Soon, Shanahan began scouting possible venue locations around Chicago. Although there were three other venue sites being considered, Shanahan waited for the right moment to act. Asking Shanahan what it was like stepping inside the former community center at 3730 N Clark St. for the first time, he automatically responds: “cold.”
“The place was a fucking mess. It was a wreck,” says Shanahan with a laugh. “There were holes in the walls, plumbing didn’t work, and the electricity didn’t work. We had a landlord that was somewhat supportive, but he was in bad shape because he didn’t have money to fix the place up because no one was paying any rent. It was a real cat-and-mouse kind of game…The city issues were always there. I feel we’ve been smart by following the rules and understanding the rules. The alderman that was here when I first started was a guy by the name of Bernie Hansen. Bernie just told me, ‘Keep your nose clean, don’t do anything stupid, don’t do anything illegal and you’re fine. You’ll be okay.’ He didn’t get along with everyone in this ward as far as clubs, but I kind of took him at his word.”
What is now a prime location on the North Side of the city, back then, could almost be described as a demilitarized zone. “Wrigleyville was dead,” says Shanahan thinking back to those early days. “It was gang-ridden, there were lots of drugs, and the Cubs were probably drawing 6,000 a game until they got to the playoffs in ’84. It’s changed a lot. We’ve kind of watched the neighborhood grow up around us a little bit.”
With his original partner and co-owner, Joe Prino, and an estimated 10 people on staff (mostly made up of friends), Shanahan made the step to promote what would be his first show for Metro (then the Cabaret Metro) while seeing a small group out of the college town of Athens, Georgia, during a weekend in New York. That band was R.E.M. “They had lost a club show; a promoter had pulled out on them,” says Shanahan. “I had met them at the Danceteria in New York. I went backstage and introduced myself to Mike [Mills], Michael [Stipe], Peter [Buck], Bill [Berry], and Jefferson [Holt]. I said, ‘If you ever come through Chicago, I’m going to be opening a club someday and you’re the kind of band I’d love to have play for me.’ And they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ You can just imagine what they were thinking. But someone remembered that. When I think about the fact that they are the cornerstone of this company and this club, I’m still proud of that today.”
The resume of artists that have come to perform at Metro over the course of 25 years is absolutely stunning. From artists just starting out to established icons, Shanahan and his staff made sure that Metro provided the stage. But once in a while there’s an artist that Shanahan can’t catch fast enough. “Wilco became so successful so quickly in Chicago that we didn’t get to work with them as much as maybe I would have liked to,” says Shanahan. “Uncle Tupelo played here. But with the Wilco evolution they were big enough to play the Vic almost right out of the box. I’m a huge fan of that band. They were just sort of out of our reach.”
A key asset to Metro from the beginning has continued to be SmartBar. Still a DJ himself, SmartBar was the basement spot of Metro where Shanahan could keep the party going with solid talent behind the turntable and create the revenue to keep the bands coming back. “One thing that I think is important for people to know is that SmartBar is the little engine that makes it all go,” says Shanahan. “It’s a lower-cost, lower-overhead [endeavor] —just a DJ, couple doormen, and a bartender. That fueled a lot of our dreams. You have a couple good strong weekends, the following month we’d reach out and put a deposit down for a band like New Order.”
Still, with no regrets, Shanahan looks forward to closing out the club’s year-long 25th anniversary celebration that began last March with more special shows in the coming months and a live album of performances recorded at Metro. “Metro’s in for the long term,” says Shanahan, “or we wouldn’t be doing this for 25 years.”
CI Special Report #017