Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What’s it like to own one of the country’s best music venues?

(Photo credit: Joe Mazza)

In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

For more than 30 years, Metro Chicago (and its adjoining watering hole-slash-dance club Smart Bar) has been one of the city’s most dependable and storied venues, from its origins as the rented hall of an early R.E.M. concert to upcoming shows by artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Cheap Trick, RJD2, and more. Throughout the club’s entire existence, owner Joe Shanahan has been there, making sure everything runs smoothly. Metro is hosting a benefit concert on March 4: A tribute to David Bowie by Sons Of The Silent Age, who will play Station To Station in its entirety, along with surprise guests and additional music. The whole event is especially meaningful for Shanahan, as both a cancer survivor and Bowie fanatic, with proceeds from the event going to the University Of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Shanahan himself was treated. The A.V. Club spoke to him recently about his transition from young music obsessive to running a music venue his entire adult life, meeting Joe Strummer, and the importance of working with people who have your back.

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The A.V. Club: You’re from Chicago originally, right? Where did you grow up?

Joe Shanahan: I am originally from the Evergreen Park/Beverly South Side of Chicago.

AVC: Were you always into music as a kid?

JS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I had a couple older brothers and sisters that were a big part of my influences, but I discovered the typical Beatles and Stones stuff, and that kind of ushered me into more of a local or regional love of music, with Motown and Chess Records.

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AVC: Did your siblings provide competing musical influences?

JS: It was just like, they bought records. They bought 45s. And I was like, “Oh, okay, you can buy these little plastic, round things.” I got myself a turntable—they called it a record player back then—and I used to set that record player up in our garage, on the South Side, and I played records after school or on the weekends. It was kind of like my first homespun nightclub or party. But it was basically borrowing some of the records my brothers and sisters had, and then beginning to collect my own records at a young age. I believe the first record I bought was a Rolling Stones record.

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AVC: That’s a good first record. Do you remember which one it was?

JS: “Get Off Of My Cloud.”

AVC: What kind of music would you say was your first love?

JS: Well… It’s topical, because in high school, it was discovering David Bowie. It was the game changer. It was like, wait a minute: This rocks, and it’s super-cool like the Stones, but he’s writing about things that are from the future. It wasn’t just about cigarettes and girls and cars, à la Beach Boys, Stones, and Beatles. We’re talking about spacemen. We’re talking about pretty things. So that era was really beginning to sort of shape my tastes.

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And that led directly to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. I’m looking into my high school era, ’70s, you know, ’72 to ’76. And I was already turning away from the classic rock, sort of bloated versions of maybe even bands like The Who, or even the Stones a little bit. There was this other thing, and it was definitely New York and London. So it was the early, you know, New York Dolls. Obviously, the Velvet Underground was a very important band to me, but I didn’t quite discover them until a little later. But it was clearly the Bowie, Reed, Pop. That was the triumvirate.

AVC: Once you made that connection with music in high school, is that when you first started realizing that you wanted to be involved with music somehow, or did that come later?

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JS: No. I’m just a fan. I still am just a fan. There’s a thing that I say every so often: “You know, I’m not in the music business. I’m in the Metro business.” I enjoy the aspects of discovering a new band, a new DJ. It doesn’t always stays in one genre. Because of that high school era, too—I liked dance music. I liked a ton of the low, kind of down-and-dirty disco stuff that I was getting in my ears and head around that era. Not the Top 40. Top 40 at that time was everything, so when things got too popular I was like, “Eh, it’s not for me.” It was more like what was bubbling under. And I don’t think that’s changed. That’s been my ethos for most of my life.

AVC: Once you finished high school, where did you go from there?

JS: I went to school at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I was drawn to that college because a professor and a designer that I admired for most of high school was Buckminster Fuller, and he was someone that was involved at SIU back then. I was drawn to the fact that there was a school there that had a design program and an art program, so I kind of enrolled myself into the art world there. Photography, painting, sculpture, and some design of course as well. But I didn’t graduate from Southern Illinois University. There were a few years that I kind of drifted between Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City.

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AVC: So those were your wanderlust years?

JS: [Laughs.] Well, I fondly call them my Budweiser and Burger King days. Not a lot of money, you know, living kind of monk-ish. A lot of couch surfing, a lot of nights at the YMCA. I’d go to New York to see something at CBGB’s, or something at the Danceteria or something at the Mudd Club. I’d just go for a two-week stay, and the money I’d make tending bar or waiting tables in Chicago, I’d just go and blow it in New York and then come back and start all over again. I’d always be driven by some sort of cultural… an art event, or a music event.

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But if you look at it chronologically, ’76 I leave Chicago, go to Carbondale. ’77 is when I discover The Clash. I discover The Ramones. I mean, I’m old enough now to go to New York and see the Ramones at CBGB’s, so I’m going to do that, because I’m drawn to that. And then in the same breath, I’d go to CBGB’s for a night or two, and then I’d sneak into Studio 54 to satisfy my dance mojo. Which was super fun. Now that I look at it, I just was going to the places my friends were going, and doing what we were all doing, but that was pretty epic that we figured out. That was ground zero for New York City at the time.

AVC: What was the first step or steps you took in setting up your own music event or doing something of your own?

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JS: It goes back to when I was in Carbondale. I took over a night in a bar that was underperforming. I was a bartender, I went to the owner and said, “Look, I want to do a night. I’m going to do a punk rock night. I’ll DJ, I’ve got a couple of friends who are in a band, the band can play. You’ll get the bar, I’ll get the door.” It’s a deal that probably hasn’t changed in 30, 40 years. And that’s how it started. I did a punk rock night. I think I still have the original flier, it was like 25-cent beers and a lot of college kids would come out and just jump around to the Sex Pistols, and The Clash and Ramones and New York Dolls—and I still wove Davie Bowie into it, still wove Velvet Underground into those sets. And I remember DJing those things because I had the record collection. I had the records, so part of it was that I collected, and I still collect today.

So after that, I did sort of a floating party here in Chicago with a roommate of mine, and it ended up being at our house. We lived at 1533 Wells, like Wells and North Avenue. We had a beautiful two-story loft-style apartment and the living room was two turntables and a mixer. We had a little small Numark mixer and a couple Technics turntables with my ever-growing record collection that I was mining from Gramophone and from Wax Trax! at the time, and after that, I suppose I just dropped into it. I was tending bar at another place and they had a Monday night that was just failing, and I said, look, I’ll take your Monday nights, I’ll take the door, you get the bar, and we began to do sort of a hybrid of disco, dance, punk, funk… and that was the genesis of Smart Bar. I think we called it the Golden Age or something. The location of the bar was 50 East Oak Street. So we were down in a very posh neighborhood, and we brought a lot of our friends out to DJ and to dance, and everyone dressed up in great outfits and we were the anti-disco crowd.

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AVC: How long did you do that for before you decided to make it an official dance club?

JS: I think we did that for a few months. We kind of did that over a period of six parties or so. And then took it back underground, into the loft, and then I began to look for a space. And I was able to find 3730 North Clark Street, which is still my home 33 years later.

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AVC: When you first opened it up, did you have a pretty good sense of what it would entail to open an official venue like that?

JS: I kind of had an idea, but again, it’s still the same today. It’s not all me. I was able to find a group of like-minded friends, and we began to work together. I would work the door, I would DJ, I would tend bar. And then my roommate John, he would do somewhat the same. And then I had another friend, Joe, and he’d help out. So there was a core group, I’d say of about 10 of us, that would kind of collaboratively and collectively put on an event, a party, a dance party. Along the way, we began invite bands to be part of our collective, and that’s sort of part of the beginning of it.

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AVC: Were there responsibilities that popped up that surprised you or were unexpected?

JS: Oh my god, absolutely! Every day! Every day there was a problem. You know, who ordered the beer? Who made the poster? Who made the phone call back to the P.A. company? It was always something. So you began to realize that loose and fast is fun, but also, you have to be very cognizant of the fact that responsibility begins to become part and parcel of it. And I think that when I began to look at it in a little bit more of a fiscal or a fiduciarily responsible way, when I began to pay DJs and when I began to pay bands, then it was like, “Look, I’m promising you X amount of dollars to come perform. I’m going to make sure that I promote the event; we’re going to make sure it’s a fun event; we’re going to make really really sure that everybody gets paid; everybody gets what they expect out of the financial and/or the contractual agreement.” So once contracts began to creep into our little floating-party world, all that stuff is a little different. And quite honestly, we needed a home. We needed a space. And that’s when Metro and Smart Bar began to really take root.

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AVC: How did Metro first come about from that? Because it was just Smart Bar at first, right? [Smart Bar is the basement venue below Metro.—ed.]

JS: Yeah. You know Smart Bar… for June, July, August, about three months [it was] kind of on its own, and then Metro comes about at the end of the summer or so. July of ’82 is sort of the kickoff of Smart Bar officially, and then Metro slowly folds into that. The first band that we booked and that we arranged to come and play for us at Metro is a band from Athens, Georgia, called R.E.M.

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AVC: How did that happen?

JS: Again, it goes back to my, quote-unquote, “boondoggles” to New York City. I had met those guys at a club called the Danceteria and gave them my phone number and said if they ever came to Chicago, “I have a club. You should come play my club.” Of course, that wasn’t actually true, because I didn’t really have a club at the time, but I would’ve found a club to do the show. So by the time that I got the phone call from the band—they’d gotten stuck on the road and a date had fallen through for them—I did have the room. I was already operating Smart Bar. So I went to the guys who were running the big music hall, the music room next door, and I said, “I have a band, I want to pay them, I want to rent the room from you guys and we’re going to do a show.”

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So, again, as simple and as easy as that sounds, it wasn’t. It was very complicated. But we made it happen, and that night we were able to pay the band, we were able to pay the staff… I think at the end of the night we had basically pizza and beer for everybody and that was the money. That was it. We had a great time, I took my first ad in the Reader, I designed the ad myself, I went down with my $75 and that was my marketing plan. It was massive! [Laughs.]

AVC: So were local ordinances less strict at the time? Were there still so many permits you needed to just have those shows?

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JS: No. The club itself was a licensed facility, so I just went into business.

AVC: So some of the work in that sense was already done, because when you rented the club, the owners had already gone through those hoops.

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JS: Right. I didn’t have to do that until I bought the business from those guys, so that was about a year later.

AVC: Once you actually bought the Metro, what did you discover right away about the most difficult aspects of running a rock club?

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JS: Where do you want to start? [Laughs.] Every single one of them. I will tell you this much: The first thing you realize as a young business man or a young entrepreneur, is that the amount of energy you have to put into something is endless. I’ve always said that Metro was sort of my mistress. I couldn’t give her enough. I couldn’t do enough. Because anytime I thought it was done, she needed more. Whether it was a failing plumbing problem or a failing electrical problem, or staff… losing the bartender to another venue or losing a DJ. One of the first DJs I ever hired died of AIDS, and that was a really, really catastrophic moment. Because Mark Stevens was a guy that worked almost four nights a week. He was the sound of Smart Bar at one time. And one of the first people I knew that died of AIDS. And he was someone who worked for us, and it was catastrophic. The wheels stopped. I mean we all looked at each other, like, what is this? How could our friend die?

So there’s social, there’s political, there’s financial responsibilities and challenges that we as a group tackled every single day. I mean when you first realize… taxes! Oh my god! Taxes?! What is that? Tax on liquor, tax on tickets… I mean you figure it out, but you realize, “Oh my god, if we’re going to keep doing this, this floating party is now a business.” Those responsibilities are daunting.

AVC: You said when you first started Smart Bar, it was almost an attitude of the 10 or 12 of you against the world, collectively doing this thing. But it’s also a difficult thing to become an official boss managing employees. Did you take to that transition fairly naturally, or did you find it difficult to be in charge of hiring and firing and all that?

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JS: It’s interesting, because with our collective group, everyone began to kind of do what they were suited for. So one of my partners, Joe, he took to the back of the house. He took to the ordering of the alcohol and the scheduling of the bartenders. And that allowed me to work extensively in the curation of the talent and the DJs and the bands. But still, I would meet someone, I would meet a bartender at a club, and I would be like, “Man, you’ve got to come work for us! You’re so much fun. You’re a really good bartender. You’re honest.” And someone would come into our family that way.

And I had another friend, John, who was part of our early collective, and he gravitated toward the organizational side of production, and being the guy to deal with sound guys and lighting guys; while I was part and parcel to all of those meetings, he was kind of running that for the company. There was another guy, Bruce, who kind of took the reins in running the building. Making sure that the plumbing was working. Making sure that the electricity was working. Dealing with parking. Dealing with some of the aldermen or dealing with the city on certain things. And he gravitated toward that based on his skill set. So it was very fortunate, in a way that still exists today. That there are key people in my life that help continue to push this initiative, and this dream, and this effort, and quite honestly this wonderful musical experience.

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AVC: It sounds like you’re saying much of the success of being able to have a club like this going for so long is being able to find and cultivate relationships with people you can trust and who are going to make things happen, because it’s too much for any one person to do.

JS: Absolutely. In other words, I’ve always tried to build a bridge, not burn a bridge. Because whether it be an agency or a manager or a guitar player or a door man, you never know when you’re going to see them again. And the idea is to hopefully keep your reputation clean, keep your credibility clean. You know, with integrity, people are always going to take a poke at you here and there, that’s a part of it, but yes. It is the team assembly that has been the success of Metro for 34 years. And I’m glad and proud and honored that these like-minded people keep coming into our orbit, and it’s like, you just know. Like our new social media director Bret, great guy. He was working in corporate America, hated it. I met him, talked to him, and said, “You know, I need a guy like you. You should come work with us!” And he was like, “This is great.” And so now he’s involved in our company. Young, mid-20s, smart. And would rather work on the Jake Bugg show than work on selling cars for Nissan.

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AVC: Similarly, are there artists over the years that you developed a closer bond with?

JS: Where do I start? I mean, it goes back to the first band. It goes back to R.E.M. I’m still friends with Mike Mills and I see him somewhat regularly, and I’m not saying this to show off, it’s just a fact that I made friends with someone and I’m still friends with them. Certainly Billy Corgan. Perry Farrell. In a way, I don’t like mentioning names. I just feel it’s uncomfortable, because they’re all my friends. And I’ve certainly done a job, but also I appreciate what they do and how they deliver something to the world, whether I’m helping produce it, or maybe I’m also promoting it—and then protecting it, you know?

I mean, someone who I was just so lucky to have cross my path was Joe Strummer, and he was a great guy. I got to DJ for The Clash, you know? Early on in my life. I was able to play records with a friend of mine, Shelly, at the Aragon Ballroom when The Clash played on, I think it was the Combat Rock tour. And I invited those guys back to the club, I invited them back to Smart Bar, and we hung out all night long. Joe was a great guy. And I would bump into him in other situations though the years, after The Clash. He started The Mescaleros, and he played at Metro with that band several times, and we just sat and talked, and I’d take him down to Smart Bar and he talked to every single one of our friends, everybody that was at the bar, and I’m like, this is life-affirming. This is assuring me that not everybody that’s a rock star has to put a big bodyguard in front of them and keep everybody away because they’ve got that sacred air. The working-class guys are always the guys that I sort of gravitate toward.

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AVC: You’ve also helped out various bands over the years, often smaller, Chicago-area bands. What does it take for you to get more personally involved?

JS: It’s a couple of things. Number one, it’s always going to be the music. I hear something, let’s say, in a band like Wild Belle. I just heard a couple of songs. I’m like, “What is this all about?” They’re from Chicago, and you know, the friendship grows, but most importantly I look at an artist like that and see, how hard do they want to work? I’ll work as hard or harder as a promoter, as a venue, to help them achieve whatever success they wish to achieve at that time.

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I have this new little project next door to Metro called the GMan Tavern. And Jake Bugg was the first artist that played there, several years ago. And I met him and I immediately liked him, and I really liked the music, and I was like, “I’m in. Let me throw in with this. Let me help you with whatever I can do.” And he’s played Metro several times, come back to Chicago countless times, and he’s a hard-working guy. He’s a guy who really is striving for his own personal success that is not based on how many records he sells or how many tickets he sells. He’s writing good material, good music. And I recognize that. If they’re going to work hard, I’ll work as hard or harder.

AVC: Are there any unusual or crazy situations that have happened with running the club over the years, or performances that you can share in terms of things that stick out in your mind as being completely insane?

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JS: Oh god. There’s too many to count. I mean, there’s a lot. All the good stuff. I wish I could think of one off the top of my head.

AVC: Conversely, are there groups or artists that were just such a nightmare to deal with that you never want them to come back?

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JS: What we’ve tried to do with Metro is we’ve set the tone. Like, we want a band’s experience at Metro to be the best day on their tour. So we set the tone from when they walk in. A lot of bands—let’s face it, every band—they’re on the road, they’re touring, they’re up all night sometimes. Sometimes they’re drinking, sometimes they’re not drinking. Sometimes they’re traveling from Denver to Chicago on a bus or in a van. I mean, it’s hard. So I understand that. I’ve been doing this long enough that I understand it. So if someone’s a little grumpy, it’s okay. Grumpy is okay. We deal with that because we want their day here to be a great day, so when it comes to performance time, they feel that they’re ready to go.

You know, there have been some long, tough days. With snowstorms in Chicago, inclement weather, flight delays… you get into a real race with the clock. You want to be on time. You want doors at seven, you want the show to start at eight, you want the headliner on at nine so you’re done by 10, 10:30, 11, and everyone’s on their way. It doesn’t always work that way. There are challenges when it comes to all of that. Challenges on their end and challenges on our end. And so we try to eliminate and expedite the best possible experience for the bands that come through.

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AVC: That was very diplomatic.

JS: [Laughs.]

AVC: When there’s a musical sea change happening, say with the transition to alternative rock in the ’90s or things like that… are those changes that you see coming a long ways off due to your involvement at more of a ground level?

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JS: You know, again, I love local. I’ve always thought “work locally, think globally,” that kind of idea. I love the local scene. Right now we’ve been kind of front and center to the explosion of Chance The Rapper, and working with the SaveMoney Crew and everyone that’s in that enclave. You just sense that it’s happening. There’s real energy and the work is so good and so compelling, it’s not just jumping on the bandwagon, so to speak. It’s like, hold on, because this is going someplace. And is it a moment of radar? Is it a moment of sonar or something? As a club owner, for me, I think there’s a bit of a tuning fork inside me—I see it, and I gravitate toward it. I know that’s positive. That’s something that resonates in me.

And then others I just don’t. And quite honestly, that doesn’t mean I’m the arbitrator of taste. It’s just, I look at it and say, that appeals to me and I will apply what I can do to help grow that. And I think that’s why the local thing is still so important to us. Especially in Smart Bar, with our resident DJ program. Absolutely. Like our Sunday Queen night, which is all local DJs, all resident DJs, and that’s becoming one of the better nights to go out, because we stayed the course on this with quality artists. These are quality people spinning great music. And it’s a cultural thing.

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AVC: Having now done this for so long, how much of a perpetual motion machine does it become? I know you had a battle with cancer a while back. How involved did you stay on a day-to-day basis during your treatment?

JS: Well, the good thing is the resonating energy I get from coming to this building, that helped me. So while I was going through chemo and radiation, and like nine- to 16-day regiments, I would be in the hospital for a week and then be home for a week, and it would take me two days or so to kind of get my bearings, but I came into work every single week. I never missed a week. And it was, I believe, one of the reasons I was able to beat cancer, was because I was around so many positive people. That’s my crew, my staff, the people that matter to me, that I look at and talk to every single day. And it was that communication; it was like no one looked at me like I was sick. I had no hair on my body, I had lost 60 pounds, and it was coming in, and, “We’re going to sit and we’re going to work on the Cheap Trick show. We’re going to work on the Foo Fighters show. We’re going to work on the Lollapalooza after-shows. What does the poster look like? Joe, we’d like to have your eyes on this.” So I was included as I’ve always been—partly because my opinion matters, and I think that was part and parcel to my success as cancer took a swing at me. Combined with the support of my wife and my two children. Missing work just was not, it just wasn’t part of the deal. I wasn’t going to sit at home.

AVC: Was there a comfort knowing that you had built up a place that was able to step up even while you were going through that, and know it would keep on going no matter what happens?

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JS: Absolutely, yeah. And you know, when I was diagnosed, I basically told my family, and then I drove to Metro. Drove to work and announced to my staff that I had been diagnosed. And I looked around the room and there were two or three really confident people looking at me telling me, Joe, we have your back. These are incredible, grounded… I mean, they’re family. But yeah they were like, we got this. You just get healthy. And that’s what I did. [Laughs.] When you hear the universe get back to in that way, you go okay, I got this. I’m going to drink a lot of kale. [Laughs.] My wife made me so many green drinks, I nearly lost my mind.

AVC: So what advice would you give somebody just starting out who wants to do what you’ve done?

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JS: I still believe that my work ethic and the work ethics of the ones side by side with me is really clear. I think that if you have a good idea, the money will follow. We had a good idea back in 1982, and the money did follow. We now employ a hundred people and we’re open 200+ nights a year. That’s the dream, which is now a reality. I have to say, I think the most important thing that I learned was be careful. Your credibility—even more so now with social media and the transparency that’s out there—you’ve got to keep a straight story. Keep it lean and mean. That’s where people get tripped up. Just look at politics! Just look at the fact-checkers on all of these politicians. It’s hysterical to me. I’m like, oh my God, how can you not know the facts? So I think that in business, I think there’s a similarity there, there are good correlations. Just keep the facts straight, you know? And tell the truth.

AVC: Because there’s always going to be some business equivalent of PolitiFact checking you?

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JS: Totally.

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