I'm in Chicago where I had a one night layover on my way from the East Coast to Osaka, Japan. Last night I hooked up with Jeff Pazen, a friend and former DJ in Chicago that I hadn't seen for over 10 years. (He makes MT websites now!) He took me to the Smart Bar, a bar/nightlcub that was one of key influences in my life. We hung around at the bar and talked about the old days and we both had what felt like a catharsis of memories. I remembered the first time I visited as a student and how I got to know the staff and how they took me into their family.

Around 1988, I was going to the University of Chicago studying physics. I was bored and generally unhappy. One day someone brought me to the Smart Bar. I had been pretty familiar with cool clubs since night-clubbing was a big part of my high school experience in Tokyo, but the Smart Bar was special. It was an eclectic mix of goths, rock and rollers, industrial music fans and a variety of other alternative musics types. The head DJ was Mark Stephens who listened to EVERYTHING and knew every cool track whether it was Madonna, the latest underground deep house unit, or some obscure German band. I practically lived in Mark's DJ booth where he'd chat about music with us.

What was particularly inspiring for me about the Smart Bar was the community. I had lived in Japan and had experience with family, but had never seen such a vibrant community. Smart Bar and other nearby clubs like Medusa's were very inclusive and lots of people who needed a place to go ended up joining these communities. AIDS was just getting into full swing and there were people with a variety of problems and needs. (AIDS eventually took Mark's life and Jeff and I got a little teary eyed talking about Mark... Mark was our mentor and a star...) What was surprising to me was how much the community took care of those in need while still maintaining a fun and edgy style. It was a contrast to the formal and forced interactions that I was having with most of my college professors and fellow students (Sorry folks!). The struggle and the issues faced in college also seemed petty compared to the things people in the Smart Bar community were dealing with. This contract became unbearable and I dropped out of college (again) and became a DJ. My late mother, realizing that I needed to "get something out of my system" was generally understanding and supportive.

Mark helped me land a regular gig at the Limelight and let me spin records at Smart Bar occasionally. To this day, that year or so as a "professional" DJ was probably the most fun I've ever had.

Several years later, with the support of co-owner and "father" of Smart Bar, Joe Shanahan, I invited several of the Smart Bar crew to help me run a nightclub in Japan. This was probably second on my list of the most fun periods of my life. (For a short period I was a "player" in the Tokyo nightclub scene which lead in part to my relationship with Timothy Leary. Tim kicked off my relationship with San Francisco. I'll write more about this some other time.) Jeff had been Mark's first pick of DJs to invite to Japan, but for various reasons Jeff hadn't been able to go and we talked about how things would have been different if he had.

Anyway, even though I'm not going to be in Chicago for even 24 hours this time, seeing AKMA briefly and hanging out with Jeff at Smart Bar reminded me that Chicago is still my favorite city. I need to figure out a way to get back here more.

16 Comments

Do it, Joi — next time I’ll try not to geet lost on our way to the restaurant!

The late 80s and very early 90s were definitely also a very special time in my life as well. And in the Bay Area.

The whole concept of the smartbar also deserves a revisiting.. I feel.. Especially now that there seem to be so many forces trying so hard to make us 'dumb' (or numb) and give up hope.

I have to say, there would still be a very significant and receptive audience for something like that in almost every major city in America.

When my friend Tim and I did the Ambient Lounge space at Love here in SF (When Jim English and Dave Dean were doing it, maybe 1989 or so?) we were the first to really explore the 'slow down' 'relax' 'decompress' space and its various options here in SF - and it was as a conscious alternative to the hyperfrenetic dance floor upstairs..

But - it became so much bigger than that - for a time - became the real inner core of that club.. and also a womb of sorts where several other clubs were born, or at least the ideas for them, including the idea for a smartbar, (which I still remember pitching to Jim - with Mark H. - we were planning the first ToonTown and I arguing with him that it *would* be legal, and him worrying that it wouldn't - or that it would get him in trouble *smile* Of course, he ended up going into that business..)

You know.. we really need something like that now.

I still constantly run into people on the street who reminisce about that period with me.. it was really a magic time.

Wouldn't it be great if that could happen again?

There is so much new technology widely available now that could make it possible to make environments we could only have dreamed about then.. things like auto-generative sound, immersive video and new forms of lighting..

Once part of the DJ culture, always part of it. Something you never forget and now and then want back to, happens to all of us.

Having a good and clued DJ available is a rare thing, quite often .. the people who call themselves "DJs" usually stick to very standard mixes of heavy metal, hard rock and hip hop, quite often. Without caring just what they are playing or how / when it should be played, as long as the volume is cranked up to the max.

Thanks for a pointer to that bar.

I was in Chicago from '89-92. I remember Limelight well, mainly because a friend of mine was a bartender there. The one I went to more often was called "Shelter"... but I never was much of a "Club Person".

I preferred the bohemian squalor of Wicker Park.

I didn't know you majored in physics. I did the same at Berkeley and, like you, was bored out of my mind.

I used to hang around the Smart Bar in the mid eighties. I also hung around some of the more punk clubs like Exit, Central American music Hall and back in my high schoold days The Cubby Bear (a long story) and Club COD. The punk scene sometimes over lapped with the club scene in the mid eighties. Things diverged in the late eighties though and clubs like the Limelight were thought of as totally commercial by the punk crowd, the punks used to call it the SlimeLife. A lot of those cool eighties scenes overlapped and now you would not know it because they have become so distinct and less creative. Characters of themselves.

Chicago is the best. I wonder what new underground stuff is going on there these days.

Yeah, Limelight was my "job" but Smartbar was where my heart was. Limelight catered to a more mainstream crowd. One of the big differences is that Smart Bar, Medusa's and a lot of the other great clubs were started by people who worked in clubs. To this day, Joe hangs out at Smart Bar. I don't think I ever met the owner of Limelight the whole time I worked there. I think clubs produced by professional investors rather than people who work at and loves clubs will never be as good... in the long haul.

"Chicago is the best. I wonder what new underground stuff is going on there these days."

toyota scion - was doing on-line free registration 4 shows at a new bar called "sonotheque" near chicago and ashland the last 2 years.... my guy promotes it... we had everything from grand master flash, 2 digable planets, and dj premier, biz markee, MF Doom, 9th wonder etc...

check out sonotheque... it's got the best sound for a smaller euro style club.

there is a place called Trevia on milwaukee and north av...
brand new, but up-and-comming... we did a show there last month.

if you talk about "community" in chicago 87-92, you have to know about neo on monday nights...and cairo..as well as the whole surreal scene on sheffield/clark/belmont...what an amazing time!!!

Actually, Jeff was a Neo DJ too. I remember Neo and Cairo. ;-)

wasn't jeff dj on monday nights? fondly recall the characters at neo----black guy with a huge python, old japanese man dancing, etc.......those were the days :o)

Chicago is still bangin!
There is an amazingly tight-knit techno/electro/idm/minimal scene here that is cranking out some amazing djs and producers. (Koncept, NBFC, Meotic, Opaque are all groups doing unique stuff but in a similar vein but somehow manage to stay friendly attend one anothers events, etc.)

If you check the line ups at Tini Martini, Sonotheque, Bettys Blue Star, and Smart Bar you'll pretty much find something great going down nearly every day of the week. October is off the chain actually, finishing up with the grand finale Magda at Smart Bar on one night and then Hawtin the next (unfortunately at Sound Bar, but we
'll squeeze out the meat market crowd (or at least make them feel really uncomfortable.))

Hey,

can you answer this for me? I'm from Chicago and I was friends with a doorman from the Limelight back in the late 80's - he had been a former doorman at HangUpps on Elm near Rush St before that ..... his name was Jeff and he told me that he was moving to Atlanta to work the Limelight there. A couple years later I moved to Atlanta and I'm still hoping to say hi .....
my question is what was his last name and do you know how I can hook up with him?
If you have any information on his whereabouts, I sure would appreciate it,
Thank you much.

I was deeply involved in the the Chicago club scene as a musician and a DJ during the time you speak of. My band 8 1/2 was managed by Peter Katsis, and we played at Metro all the time. I also was a DJ/VJ for Shelly Howard from the Park West upstairs at Metro, and DJ'ed lots of shows there. I was a DJ at so many clubs! You might get a taste, if you check out my website.

Hi Joi! I am Mark's niece. When I found this article and the kind words you said about hhim, I have to admit, I got teary eyed also. I know you put this on here back in 2005, however, I am hoping you will be able to read this. Even though I was a young teenager when Uncle Mark passed away, I remember him talking about his friends he made in Chicago. He truly loved what he did and I am sure he would be ecstatic that he made such an impact on peoples lives.

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