The following is an article written and published for an academic journal by Dr. christine Barrett who was a teenager when she frequented a dance club in Chicago that some friends and I opened in 1983. I claim no ownership here and I am aware that my readership does not reach over 100 on this blog. This particular time frame of my life was instrumental in shaping my life and psychology.
Medusa’s, Chicago’s most well-known all-ages nightclub, provides a vibrant case study of how music venues have played a vital role in the longstanding relationship between young people and popular music. The club’s unusual mix of music (from post-punk to house) drew unconventional teenagers to its doors every weekend. While popular memory of Chicago’s ’80s-era youth culture is often conflated with depictions in John Hughes films, which were shot in the city’s suburbs, Medusa’s offers another vision. This analysis contextualizes Medusa’s within its sociohistorical milieu while emphasizing how a significant “alternative” music space is remembered by its former teenage patrons and young adult employees.
It is January 1986 and an early Saturday evening in Chicago. Hundreds of shivering teenagers are wrapped around a large building at the corner of Sheffield Avenue and School Street on the city’s north side. Goths, punks, skinheads, mods, and androgynous “club kids” are all on hand waiting in line. Ecstatic exchanges between both friends and strangers are accompanied by the low rumble of elevated trains passing nearby and the scent of pizza from Leona’s restaurant down the street. The building’s plain, brick edifice gives no clues as to what awaits inside, but the teenagers know. This is Medusa’s: the city’s premier “alternative” all-ages nightclub. Soon, these young patrons will come in from the cold and ascend a dark, steep staircase to the venue’s entrance. Once inside, the night will be theirs to discover, whether dancing to post-punk or house music, displaying their subcultural fashions, or socializing with like-minded others. This mental snapshot from more than 30 years ago not only provides a glimpse of some young Chicagoans’ Saturday night out, but symbolizes more. From 1983 to 1992, Medusa’s—at its original Sheffield Avenue location—was a rare instance of a teenage-friendly “juice bar” in a country where nightclubs have normally catered to those of and above the legal drinking age of 21. The club was also unapologetically non-mainstream in its music and style. In these ways, Medusa’s is a vibrant and unique case study of how music venues have played a vital role in the longstanding relationship between young people and popular music. Consequently, this article contributes to the growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship that chronicles and documents the histories of 20th-century youth cultures and subcultures. More specifically, this narrative of Medusa’s offers new insights into the music-oriented leisure activities of American, 1980s-era youth.
Rationale and Methodology
While a version of Medusa’s still exists today in the Chicago exurb of Elgin, this article chronicles the scene emanating from its original address in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood. This focus on its flagship location is due to the attention already being paid to it by former patrons and employees via online articles, blog posts, and the private “Medusa’s on Sheffield” Facebook group (Arnold; Burt; Royster; “Medusa’s”). Moreover, the time period during which the original Medusa’s existed is compelling in its cultural history. Though 1980s youth culture has received some scholarly attention already (Cateforis; Crossley; Speed), there are still many narratives from that time yet to be told. Such literature is indicative of a growing trend in the interdisciplinary study of youth that examines its history per se. Many such accounts illustrate how popular music, from 1950s rock and roll onwards, has affected young people (see Stratton; Webb; Worley). Furthermore, some have focused on the importance of music venues within this history (Kiszely; Nowak; Seppälä and Hellman). Accordingly, this narrative offers a glimpse into an unusual 1980s-era nightclub—not just its cutting-edge music, ambience, or, given America’s legal drinking age, that it was open to teenagers—but also what this “‘alternative’ space” (Hollands) meant to some of the young patrons and employees who helped define it.
This look at Medusa’s on Sheffield uses a sociohistorical methodology by combining information gathered through primary and secondary sources with testimony from 17 former patrons and employees. Because of the geographic distance between myself and most participants, I conducted only one face-to-face interview. In all other cases, asynchronous “email interviews” were coordinated (James and Busher). Additionally, since I frequented the club from 1985 to 1988, autobiographical “insider” knowledge helps structure this account of Medusa’s and was also useful in participant recruitment (Hodkinson, “Insider”). I was able to email invitations to former employees and patrons with whom I remain in contact and also placed a recruitment notice on the “Medusa’s on Sheffield” Facebook page. Though I anticipated more interviewees for this project, the small sample size is sufficiently representative for “data saturation.” This is because I employed targeted, purposeful recruiting within a relatively small community of people and posed the same set of 12 questions to all participants (Beitin; Guest, Bunce, and Johnson 74–76).
This article’s structure also takes cues from oral history—a method brilliantly employed by the late Studs Terkel, a famed Chicagoan who, coincidentally, is said to have once made an appearance at Medusa’s (Gustavson; Burt). In oral history, a story like this one is understood through individuals’ “reflective accounts of lived experience” (Thompson 286). Though people’s memories of the past (and their youth, in particular) are often tinged with nostalgia, these recollections nonetheless help reconstruct past phenomena that may otherwise remain undocumented. As Catherine Strong suggests, it is the meaning-making of such memories that matters (420). Thus, as with most oral histories, this narrative is as much about how Medusa’s is remembered today as it is an attempt to construct a cultural history of the venue and its scene. Importantly, it must be said that this account is but one of many possible narratives about Medusa’s and does not presume to be a definitive history of the venue.
Finally, while Medusa’s was an ’80s-era nightclub, it must be put into the context of 1980s Chicago specifically. The way that specific time periods and places are understood in the present is frequently contingent upon “popular memory,” which is driven by media representations and consensus (Brabazon 67). In this way, Chicagoan youth culture from this time might be synonymous with the many John Hughes films of the era such as Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), which were usually set and filmed in the city’s northern suburbs. His teen-oriented filmography depicts a suburban, Midwestern high school scene where preppies and jocks are the dominant peer groups with a few valiant outsiders kicking against the grain (Brammer). That his films’ soundtracks showcased songs from British bands like the Psychedelic Furs and New Order—groups that were not featured in mainstream, American media—complemented the status of Hughes’s “outsider” protagonists. Incorporating such songs, however, also inaccurately conflated this “new music” with Chicago’s youth culture more broadly. Listening to such bands was still uncommon for most Chicago-area teenagers. As a former Mod remembers, “In the early 80s the northern suburbs were still Styx and [REO] Speedwagon turf…there was, like, one punk rock kid in the school” (Jones). Nonetheless, Hughes’s films did offer glimpses of what being an “alternative” teenager could mean and what music accompanied that identity (Cateforis 53, 56). If his films presented a muted, mediated vision of this, weekend nights at Medusa’s offered teenage patrons vibrant experiences of the real thing.
Medusa’s in 1980s Chicago
Medusa’s opened in October 1983 and is remembered primarily as a dance-oriented all-ages club that favored various strands of (mostly) British post-punk alongside locally produced house music. When asked which bands they still associate most with Medusa’s, the former patrons included in this study mentioned UK post-punk groups the Cure, Depeche Mode, and New Order as well as Belgian proto-industrial act Front 242. Though the club’s Friday and Saturday night dance parties were its biggest draw, Medusa’s also hosted occasional concerts. These shows, usually held on Sundays or weeknights, were much more diverse in musical genres. By the end of the decade, internationally touring death or thrash metal acts like Sepultura and national hardcore bands such as Agnostic Front played there (Beaner666; “Ticket Booth”). Nonetheless, both primary and secondary sources emphasize that the club was best known as a place to dance (Arnold; Burt; Donato; Popson; Royster). On the club’s main floor it was normal to hear DJs spin post-punk songs like Tones on Tail’s “Go!” back-to-back with house tracks like Lil Louis’s “French Kiss” (Burt). This point alone made Medusa’s different from venues both in Chicago and elsewhere, since clubs tended to be genre-specific.
The fact that the nation’s most successful and longest-running all-ages and “alternative” nightclub was located in Chicago (and not New York or Los Angeles) is significant. New York has a long tradition of Bohemianism and is known as the American birthplace of punk (Clark 226, 228; O’Meara; Wetzsteon). Los Angeles is generally thought of as both frenetic—because of Hollywood’s influence—and relaxed, due to the cultural connotations of the West Coast as “laid-back” (Brook; Clark 231). Los Angeles and Orange County are also associated with punk due to the longstanding scenes there (Lewis; MacLeod). Unlike the era’s fairly well-documented punk, post-punk, and “alternative” scenes elsewhere in the USA (Goshert; Lewis; Lull) or the importance of house music in Chicago (Rietveld), scholarship focusing exclusively on alternative, ’80s-era youth culture in the Midwest’s largest city remains absent. Arguably, this omission is linked to the fact that New York and Los Angeles have traditionally been perceived as progressive places while Chicago’s cultural sensibilities are still often couched within a narrative of Midwestern provincialism (Sisson, Zacher, and Cayton 428).
Some urban theorists, however, read Chicago as a city of contradictions. On one hand, it is a cosmopolitan metropolis, with a prolific history of both innovative industry and leisure; on the other, it is a parochial city influenced by Catholicism and old-fashioned (European) traditionalism stemming from the city’s distinct and enduring ethnic communities. Furthermore, and despite Chicago’s sizable African-American population—which has enriched the city throughout its history, particularly with music genres like jazz, blues, and house—its neighborhoods remain highly segregated (Clark 222; Wilson and Taub). With lingering, old-world values reinforcing Midwestern provincialism, it is not surprising that the majority of Chicago’s teenagers during the 1970s and 1980s would have been attracted to mainstream values or youth styles. As testament to this, the 2007 documentary You Weren’t There, which chronicles the birth of Chicago’s punk scene, describes how the city’s first punks were often bullied by (the more conventional) hard rock fans. The film suggests that these were likely the same youths who, in 1979, publicly burned disco albums in Chicago’s Comiskey Park baseball stadium. It was an event that unflinchingly displayed hatred for disco and its gay, black, and Latino fans. It stands to reason, then, that this same cohort would also have taunted male punks with homophobic slurs due to the latter’s ostensibly “flamboyant” style choices (Frank).
While a small punk scene was thriving in Chicago by the early 1980s, and even despite the fact that that the city had the country’s first established gay neighborhood (“Boystown”), it was still commonplace that any kind of perceived or noticeable difference—such as sporting a subcultural style—was greeted with derision if not outright aggression (Gellman). More conservative peers happily harassed youths who did not conform. As America’s then third largest city, Chicago did offer more enclaves of “difference” than most other places in the country. However, the city’s culture remained, in some respects, influenced and driven by reactionary attitudes. Joe Michelli, a Medusa’s video jockey (“VJ”) between 1983 and 1987, sported an eclectic, “art school” style at the time. He remembers: “Even having an earring (as a guy) was the subject of taunts….There was always the threat of hassle from police [or from] gangs of other youths who were of a more conservative bent.” Club patron Erin Ward, who grew up on the city’s north side, recalls 1980s Chicago as being a place “where you could get harassed for having funny-colored hair or a nose ring” and, because of this, “Medusa’swas a spot where alternative kids could feel at home.” Mary Mercado-Bradford, another Medusa’s regular, recollects that “back then, people really separated/classified people based on their appearance” and Medusa’s was a place where the “not so normal/alternative people went and knew they didn’t have to worry about being considered odd.” As a form of resistance against such attitudes, alternative youths gathered at Medusa’s and made the club central to their emergent, local scene.
Nights at Medusa’s
The best hope for young Americans to participate in some sort of alternative youth culture during the 1980s was to find a local venue fostering that kind of scene. If found, such a place would serve as a welcome replacement for the era’s more mainstream youth activities such as high-school-oriented events, shopping “at the mall,” or going to the movies (Starr 335). Nick Crossley’s work on British punk and post-punk networks highlights how nightclubs are essential to the growth of music-oriented communities (41–42). Unfortunately, finding such spaces proved challenging for this decade’s teenagers. By 1980 nearly all US states had raised their drinking age to 21, which meant that nightclubs—places likely to play underground styles of music and attract those interested in them—were off-limits to teenagers (Hollands 166–67; Merry). While some venues held occasional concerts or dance nights open to teenagers, there were few actual all-ages nightclubs in the USA. Of those, many did not necessarily feature cutting-edge music and most lasted only a few years. Medusa’s (on Sheffield), however, remained in business for nearly a decade (Arnold; “Eighties Clubs”; Kotarba and Wells). Former Medusa’s manager Gregory “Blue” Pittsley says that not acquiring a liquor license meant that Medusa’s could be an “after hours” establishment open all night. This decision enabled teenagers to attend and would be a saving grace by 1987 when a new law required Chicago’s “juice bars” to close at the same time as regular bars (Donato and Strong). According to Blue, “By that time, we were well established as a popular all-ages venue, so we were able to survive the change.”
I was among the cohort of Chicago youths who longed for something beyond suburban, mainstream culture. I recall seeing an advertisement for Medusa’s in the Chicago Reader, the city’s weekly alternative newspaper, and was intrigued that a city nightclub was available to teenagers. When I think about my experiences as a Medusa’s regular, I remember the energy that went into preparing for the evening: selecting just the right clothes and jewelry, teasing my hair into the shape of a wild, spiky plant, and applying makeup to resemble Siouxsie Sioux. Alongside this image, the memory that lingers is a visceral one—a combined feeling of anticipation and possibility that accompanied me on every visit to the club. Medusa’s always felt thrilling. It showed me how the adult world could be playful and interesting rather than earnest and mundane. It was also where I heard new, hard-to-find music imported from Britain—a country my friends and I imagined was infinitely more exciting than the USA because of the bands and subcultural styles that originated there.
While Medusa’s featured some local music (house and Wax Trax! band Ministry) and North American acts (from Vancouver’s Skinny Puppy to DC’s Bad Brains), Dane Roewade, who began frequenting the club in 1984 at 17, recalls “a huge portion [of the music played] was European and most of it was relatively experimental.” Travis Stansel, a Medusa’s regular by 1986, also remembers hearing “a lot of British music and not so much American,” which prompted a seemingly “affected preference” of British over American bands among the club’s patrons. While mainstream UK bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club were popular on MTV and on the American Billboard charts by the early ’80s, Medusa’s provided a more underground version of this (musical) Anglophilia. It allowed young Chicagoans to imagine themselves as part of a cosmopolitan, music-oriented community with Britain as its attractive, edgy epicenter (Cateforis 65; Reynolds xi).
The venue hosting these youthful fantasies was opened by local impresario Dave Shelton. According to Rod Rushing, one of the club’s former managers, Shelton was so modest (not wanting to name the venue after himself) that “we had to convince Dave to name it ‘Medusa’s’ … an old nickname of his from the 1970’s Chicago gay scene.” Inspired by the stories surrounding Andy Warhol’s Factory and New York clubs like Studio 54, Shelton sought to bring artistically inspired all-night parties and underground extravaganzas to his hometown (Donato; “The Godfather”).
The building at 3257 North Sheffield Avenue that Shelton rented to house the club was a former Swedish social hall surrounded by more residences than businesses (Figure 1). Mirko Cukich, a teenage employee and patron of the club, describes Medusa’s exterior as similar to Dr. Who’s expansive time machine, the Tardis, which disguises itself as a small police box: “Outside it seemed like a regular old brick building with fire escapes on the sides and back. But inside, just like the Tardis, it seemed bigger than it was….[Medusa’s] had multiple floors of fun for all.” The incongruity between exterior and interior and the lengthy line that formed around the building every weekend night were mentioned by several other former patrons as being especially memorable aspects of the club (Ayala; Claudio; Eggleston; O’Brien; Roewade; Stephens). Once inside the front door, patrons climbed a steep staircase to the club’s entrance and main floor. Melanie Eggleston, a Medusa’s regular between 1986 and 1991, remembers this space as infused with “the smell of smoke, Aqua Net [hairspray] and Drakkar Noir [cologne].” Former VJ Joe Michelli describes this stairwell as a form of “ceremonial ascension” into the club. Joe’s words connect to Sarah Thornton’s observation that “club worlds are markedly divorced from the work world outside….[I]nner doors and stairways create transitional labyrinths” into a specialized environment (57).
After paying admission at the top of the stairs, patrons entered the dimly lit main level of the club, which offered a large dance floor with a stage at its far end. At 3,500 square feet and room for nearly 400 guests (which was often over legal capacity), this was where many guests spent their evenings. Christina Stephens, who first heard about the venue from high-school friends, thought of Medusa’s as nothing less than a “massive, gothic wonderland” that was “smoky, dark, yet inviting.” For Travis Stansel the layout of the main floor resembled the “giant nave” of a church. Though decor in this space was constantly changing thanks to local artists like Tom Hemingway, large scaffolding was ever-present. Already attending university two hours outside Chicago, though still a club regular, Sally Kinsey shares,
More than anything I remember the scaffolding. I had climbed it more than once to dance on the platform above. [A theme] I remember most is huge neon money [fake dollar bills] hanging from the ceiling… [and strewn] all over the club like confetti.
While the main floor was impressive in and of itself, it was but one part of this large club.
From the main dance floor another staircase led up to a 250-square-foot mezzanine-level balcony featuring one of the club’s several “juice bars.” Patrons could take a break from dancing here, chat with friends, and buy sodas like Orangina and New York Seltzer. To the left of the bar was a glass-enclosed room featuring various kinds of installation or performance art. A final flight upstairs led patrons to the extensive top floor, which, at approximately 4,500 square feet, accommodated almost 300 guests and featured themed rooms large and small throughout. Smaller rooms hosted juice bars and galleries, while larger ones housed various incarnations of the rotating “video room.” By the late ’80s there would also be a “rock room” for concerts. In 1985, when I first went to Medusa’s, the video room was at the far end of the top floor. Seating reminiscent of pulled-apart restaurant booths was placed throughout the room, while the middle area remained open for dancing. Music videos were projected onto a large screen that hung at the back of the room, while the walls to either side were filled with multiple smaller TVs (Figure 2). VJs like Joe Michelli and Leroy Fields operated out of a small corner room, where a Dutch door allowed clubgoers to speak with them and request videos.
Figure 2. Inside Medusa’s video room, mid-1980s. Photo courtesy of Jayson “Giggles” Janis.
When considering the music played on Friday and Saturday nights, upstairs or downstairs, the Medusa’s DJs and VJs were eclectic in their tastes. They would mix traditional, British post-punk (Joy Division, the Fall, Gang of Four), American new wave (the B-52s, Romeo Void), goth (Bauhaus, the Sisters of Mercy), industrial (Severed Heads, Revolting Cocks), and, by 1991, grunge (Nirvana, Alice in Chains). Chicago house music tracks were also played on the main floor, with some songs remixed by Medusa’s DJs at the local Trax recording studio (Michelli). The club’s sonic diversity was mirrored by many of the club’s patrons, who identified with subcultures such as goth, skinhead, and mod–groups that either first emerged or experienced strong revivals during the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s (Hodkinson, “Goth”; Jones; Wyman). Given this variety of patrons, the main floor’s DJs blended a wide array of (danceable) tracks. As Dane Roewade remembers it:
The DJs…from Bud Sweet to Teri Bristol to Mark Stephens—THEY were the ones who made the music magical….The successful mixing of different styles and genres of music in one night on one dance floor the way they did it— it would NEVER be heard of ANYWHERE anymore. DJs now all seem completely unwilling to deviate from an extremely narrow set of musical parameters and sounds.
Manager Rod Rushing recounts that this unorthodox blend of music was, at least in part, a reaction to the continued dominance of disco at many of the city’s gay clubs, where some Medusa’s DJs also had worked:
[DJ] Mark Stephens and I were best friends and talked about music incessantly. He and I had been going to live shows for a few years before [Medusa’s] opened. We saw Gang of Four, Grace Jones, Stray Cats, Bauhaus, B-52s, all prior to the club opening. Medusa’s originally opened as a “gay” after hours club with the la-la disco music that had dominated gay bars in Chi-town during the late 70’s and early 80’s. I almost begged Dave [Shelton] to not do “more of the same.” I convinced him to give Kasey Crabtree a shot for the Friday nights who had some local fame as an alternative DJ from Northwestern University. That night stimulated the beginning of the “crossover” vibe at the club.
In this way, Medusa’s not only became a key site for non-conformist teens, but was also an alternative for young adults within the city’s gay community. While dance clubs have often brought gay and straight people together, the punk (and post-punk) scenes also have a queer-friendly history (see Crossley 56; Taylor 117–18). Although the music at Medusa’s was not exclusively post-punk, this cultural aspect of the genre significantly influenced the club’s character.
While DJs and dancing usually commandeered the club’s first floor, the stage at the back of the room made it possible to hold intimate-feeling concerts with few barriers between the performers and their audience. Indeed, this is where the Red Hot Chili Peppers had their Chicago debut in 1984 and where British electronic music artist Anne Clark’s American premiere took place in 1986. A one-time club regular named Billy Corgan had his fledgling band the Smashing Pumpkins take to this stage as well (Burt). By the time of its closing in 1992, Medusa’s on Sheffield had hosted a wide range of local, national, and international acts including Chicago’s avant-garde pioneers Stations (1986), Belgium’s industrial icon Luc Van Acker (1987), DC’s straight edge heroes Fugazi (1990), UK goth rockers Alien Sex Fiend (1990), and American death-metal band Cannibal Corpse (1992) (“Medusa’s”; Mercado-Bradford; “Review”). Such shows drew further diverse audiences. While metalheads, hardcore punks, and skateboarders sometimes attended Medusa’s dance parties, concerts were ultimately more appealing to them.
Almost equal in popularity to the club’s dance floor, and worthy of extra attention given that this was the “MTV decade,” was Medusa’s video room. Marina Claudio traveled to the club from the northern suburbs and remembers that this space gave her and her friends “a chance to rest [from dancing], talk and watch some bizarre videos.” Jackie Marcus, who first visited Medusa’s as a 13-year-old, spent most nights in this room. She describes the music played there as mostly “new wave, punk, and goth.” Erin Ward identified as goth at the time and enjoyed the room because “Sisters of Mercy, Cocteau Twins, Peter Murphy, Cure, [and] Siouxsie” videos often were put into heavy rotation. In the 2014 documentary Beautiful Noise, which charts the rise of some British post-punk bands from the early 1980s onward—groups now categorized as “indie”—Billy Corgan mentions hearing the Cocteau Twins for the first time at Medusa’s. He likely would have heard something like their “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” in the video room.
Since VJs were not required to play solely danceable songs, videos by anyone from the ethereal Cocteau Twins to the bombastic Laibach easily coexisted within a night’s playlist. By introducing new songs and artists, while also taking requests, VJ Leroy Fields believes this was a time when “being a DJ/VJ really meant something to the clubgoers and you could promote bands on a grass roots level.” Joe Michelli featured videos he believes contributed to Medusa’s being on the “bleeding edge of [the then] current underground culture.” He often played music by dissonant-sounding bands like Psychic TV or punk acts like Suicidal Tendencies. Joe recalls that owner Dave Shelton “would come in and look around [and] shake his head in disbelief at what kept people riveted to the large projection screen.” Inspired by his coursework at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, Michelli made experimental music videos to share with the Medusa’s crowd:
I tried to think about it deeply, I didn’t just throw stuff up there. I was an art student studying art history…simultaneously taking painting classes. [I was] constructing images from the ground up as well and getting to edit all this wild stuff…and, then, show it to people: throw it up on the screen and see what sticks, gauge reactions. I think it helped me refine the process and I started cutting faster and faster and finding weirder and weirder things, contrasting the strange stuff against each other.
In this respect, the VJs and those attracted to the video room shared a common goal—they wanted their night to be one of discovery.
While Medusa’s created a singular universe indoors, the club’s location added to its allure. With Lakeview’s myriad underground shops and cafés, Medusa’s became the jewel in the crown of Chicago’s most Bohemian neighborhood—often referred to as “Clark and Belmont” by locals due to its busiest intersection (Sawyers). Carter O’Brien grew up in Lakeview and concurs that part of Medusa’s appeal had to do with its environs:
[The club] had that magnetic draw in a pretty progressive part of town, which resulted in hundreds of teenagers just hanging out in the neighborhood. It was so central to this wild and diverse culture, it made you feel like you were part of a larger social movement kind of wrapped up in an ongoing and evolving piece of performance art on a neighborhood scale.
Part of this youth-led “performance art” happened at a Dunkin’ Donuts, which stood at one corner of Clark and Belmont. This unlikely connection between nightclub and the donut shop arose because Chicago’s curfew law necessitated that those under 17 years old be home by 11 pm This meant that only older teenagers were welcome to stay at the club until closing. Despite the often strictly enforced law, those teens forced to leave the club by 10:30 pm often gathered for a post-Medusa’s street party outside Dunkin’ Donuts. A 1986 Chicago Tribune article describes the scene:
At 10:30 each Saturday night, a throng of exotically coiffed teenagers spills down [Medusa’s] staircase and onto a cracked concrete sidewalk….Around the corner and moments later, the exodus turns the asphalt lot beneath an orange-and-pink Dunkin’ Donuts sign into a playground of punk. (Mahany and Johnson)
Soon dubbed “Punkin’ Donuts,” this site was frequented by Chicago’s subcultural youth even after Medusa’s closure in 1992. When gentrification led to the shop’s demolition in 2015, journalists described the business and its location in the context of this local youth culture history (Cheung; Sudo).
Medusa’s connection to nearby Wax Trax! Records was also important and deserves some discussion. Many of the label’s artists, such as Ministry and Front 242, were played at the club and gave concerts there. The Wax Trax! store was located in the adjacent Lincoln Park neighborhood, which was only two train stops away from Lakeview’s Clark and Belmont corridor (Figure 3). The shop was essential to the city’s alternative scene, and Medusa’s employees and regulars would often run into one another there. Alongside music from the Wax Trax! label, the store’s main floor stocked hard-to-find British imports and limited-run singles by local bands. On the second floor, customers could browse through hip British magazines like iD or purchase goth and industrial-style clothing. It was the place to buy a Joy Division T-shirt or a Bauhaus poster (Lee).
Figure 3. Medusa’s, “Punkin’ Donuts,” and Wax Trax! map. Map Data @ 2016 Google.
In its urban location, its connection to Wax Trax!, and, most importantly, its innovative space and sound, Medusa’s was matchless. However, the social scene that the club created is what former patrons and employees most fondly remember.
Medusa’s as an “‘Alternative’ [Youth] Space”
In the context of urban, youth- and music-oriented nightlife, sociologist Robert Hollands has described “‘alternative’ spaces” as “unique single-site music, club and bar venues…[that] exist to meet the needs of particular youth identity groups” based on music preferences and style. He suggests that there are “diminishing opportunities for alternative residual experiences” via such places (166). Hollands’s words, written in 2002, point not only to the increasing rarity of such venues by the early 21st century but also to the importance of a place like Medusa’s within this history.
A noteworthy aspect of Medusa’s alternative pedigree is the variety of “youth identity groups” it served. Dane Roewade remembers the Medusa’s clientele as follows:
There were different subcultures: gay men, lesbians, punk rockers, skinheads, hardcore punk rockers, nu-wavers, new romantics, Batcave-looking folks [aka “goths”]… drag queens, disco lovers, performance artists, musicians, clothing designers, photographers, visual artists of every kind….[T]he number of creative types there was astounding.
This cohort, both patrons and employees, was also ethnically and racially diverse (Figure 4). For example, some skinheads who worked security were African-American, as was VJ Leroy Fields. Considering the city’s large Latino population, Javier Ayala was likely one of many regulars for whom Spanish, rather than English, was the language spoken at home. Contrarily, Travis Stansel remembers that “[m]ost of the kids were white, but others went, too. It mattered much more that someone was ‘one of us’ than it did what race they were.” Perhaps Travis’s memories come from thinking about the Medusa’s scene along subcultural rather than racial or ethnic lines—that one’s status as a “subcultural outsider” would have trumped all other aspects of identity there. For instance, Marina Claudio still thinks of the Medusa’s crowd primarily as made up of “skinheads, punks, goths and everyone else you couldn’t categorize by outward appearance.” It is little wonder that Medusa’s eclectic space embraced all who did not subscribe to hegemonic values: it was, after all, a club established by gay men who, at times, found their community’s nightclubs too culturally and sonically predictable. According to manager Rod Rushing, in Medusa’s original incarnation “[i]t was a place [where] being different and odd was an asset” rather than a liability. Fellow manager “Blue” Pittsley also attests to the club’s openness: “Our goal was to make the club as welcoming to everybody as we ourselves had always been.”
Despite the fact that many subculturally affiliated young people spent time at Medusa’s, only a few former patrons (and no employees) interviewed for this project said they aligned with a particular subculture at that time (Marcus; Stephens; Ward). According to VJ Leroy Fields, “My job was to cater to the crowd and not be part of any particular group.” Mirko Cukich, one of Medusa’s teenage employees, says:
I never really put myself with one type or the other. I was happy with New Wave people just as well as I was with Goth and Hardcore in a mosh pit. For a while I had long hair but it never seemed to be an issue with whomever I was with, which was cool because I was just being myself.
These statements underscore the omnibus aspect of ’80s-era alternative youth scenes in the USA. As exemplified by Medusa’s, various groups tended to mix. It really did not matter if the club’s young patrons even subscribed to a subcultural identity per se. It was instead a place where you could just as well be “the stereotype of an 80’s goth chick [who] wanted to grow up and marry [Bauhaus’s] Peter Murphy” or the teenager who was not a punk or goth “but was into art and music” (Stephens; Stansel). If Medusa’s had a credo, it was that being authentic to oneself was what mattered most.
Medusa’s, as an alternative space, not only offers a portrait of a vibrant, underground youth scene during the 1980s but also is in line with scholarship that focuses on the currency of night-time leisure spaces within youth culture more generally (Gallan; Homan; Thornton). It is also indicative of spaces that cultivate international youth trends and therefore create “trans-local” scenes (Bennett and Peterson; Straw 379). Clubs like Medusa’s have been spaces where young people discover independence, formulate their identities, gain or expand social networks, and situate themselves within the realities of a globalized world (Hollands; Kotarba and Wells). In this vein, I was curious as to what was most memorable or significant about the club to its former patrons reflecting on their experiences at Medusa’s. Many of them stayed in the Chicago area after turning 21, which suggests that other local nightclubs would have served as points of comparison to Medusa’s. Moreover, since the club’s former teenage patrons are now middle-aged, I was interested in why they thought Medusa’s had been important to them as younger people. Finally, and as a complementary perspective, I also wanted to know what made this club memorable to those who worked there and what stood out for them in thinking of the community they helped create and foster.
It is not surprising, given Hollands’s reading of independent nightclubs as “‘alternative’ spaces,” that former club-goers remember Medusa’s as a place where they found both belonging and kinship—things difficult to attain elsewhere. Melanie Eggleston believes “there was a real sense of community amongst the patrons of the club. Something a lot of us kids did not get in our day-to-day life.” Erin Ward states: “I loved that it was a place I could go to with friends where we weren’t the out-of-place ‘freaks’—it was a space FOR freaks.” Christina Stephens recalls: “I felt like I belonged somewhere. I felt free and liberated. I was able to spend time with like-minded individuals that listened to the same music I did, which was a big influence in my formative years.” Terrence Wade, who had a longer trip into Lakeview from the city’s south side, enjoyed meeting so many “broad-minded” people like himself. For Sally Kinsey, the feeling of belonging was linked to her moves on the crowded dance floor. She remembers:
The feeling of acceptance for who I was, the excitement of meeting new people, dancing freely (because no one was watching or judging or cared about how good or bad you danced). It was just a few hours of being.
These aspects of the club’s culture connect with sociological scholarship around “youth transitions,” which often cites “belonging” as essential to healthy development into adulthood. Whether one is conventional or on the cutting edge of culture, feeling like a valued member of a particular group or community is important to young people as they mature into adults (see Cuervo and Wyn).
Hand-in-hand with this sense of belonging to a broad-minded community was the notion among former patrons that Medusa’s offered a sense of “freedom.” Marina Claudio shares: “I found a place I could express myself through dance and dress how I wanted to without judgment.” Travis Stansel also remembers: “I could dress how I liked, wear makeup if I wanted to, and it all fit in. It was a reprieve from the suburbs….It was a place I wasn’t called names.” For teenage patrons, going to Medusa’s also offered a place for socializing beyond school, neighborhood, or home—essentially, going out to a nightclub brought with it newfound independence. Jackie Marcus explains: “[The club] was important to me because it was my social life—something I looked forward to every Saturday night….Couldn’t wait to see my friends and get dressed up for the evening.” Mary Mercado-Bradford says: “I was extremely shy but very adventurous and loved to go out to see live bands playing.” For Jackie and Mary, going to Medusa’s allowed for mobility into the heart of the city as well as the independence that came with the “adult” pursuit of nightclubbing.
This sense of freedom also had to do with Medusa’s queer-friendly reputation. As a club founded by gay men—and one that welcomed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth—such acceptance meant that teenagers could be open about their sexual (and/or gender) orientation. This was a rarity in 1980s America. Javier Ayala shares that he grew up in a “tough neighborhood” and that “Medusa’s opened a whole new world” to him. This includes the fact that the club is also where he met his first boyfriends. Erin Ward came out as bisexual during the years she frequented Medusa’s. While coming out was a relatively gentle experience for her, it was nonetheless couched within other adolescent stresses. Reflecting, she tells me that she almost takes for granted that Medusa’s was a place—during that era—where she could be open about her sexuality. She adds that her enjoyment and regular patronage of the club had more to do with “being with my friends in that space, having fun, dancing and singing along to all our favorite music” than with the fact that it was a queer-friendly scene.
With regard to sexuality more broadly, 1980s youth of all orientations were coming of age during the initial AIDS crisis. This was a time when much about the disease remained unknown and when young people were inundated with messages about “safe sex” (Flora and Thoresen). While Travis Stansel believes that “in [Medusa’s] dark corners…there was some sexual activity,” others recall that such desires were expressed through dancing. Terrence Wade remembers one night when he experienced feelings of intimacy with two girls and a boy on the dance floor.
It was the greatest love affair I ever had, licensed by lyrics, betrothed by bass, consummated by rhythm. When I wanna go to a happy place [now] I think of that dude, that shirt [he was wearing], his smile onset by musical euphoria. I think of the girls, too! Very pretty all of us.
Similar observations were made by Dane Roewade:
This was the time of AIDS. People were scared, but people were attracted to [each other], too. I think this gave rise to very intimate dancing….It was like foreplay among lovers… [but] you weren’t going home to have sex with them. That seemed to be the subtext. [The dancing was] sexual expression as hot as it could be without the final act.
It is clear that discovering one’s sexuality is a key milestone within teenage life. That Medusa’s allowed patrons of all inclinations moments of flirtation, romance, and sexual experimentation made the club an important “alternative space” for its young clientele.
Among the former employees I interviewed, notions of community and autonomy—both professional and personal—played crucial roles in why Medusa’s was important to them. VJ Leroy Fields loved the mix of people who made up the community: “There were groups from the suburbs and from all over the city who would come together on the weekend and socialize at the club. The amazing thing was the diversity of patrons.” Leroy remains in contact with many former regulars who, as young people, appreciated the respect and attention he showed them when talking about music. Leroy attests to this when he says “I always thought of myself as a musical father figure to the patrons.” VJ Joe Michelli remembers the friendship among the club’s employees. This, in turn, also created a harmonious relationship between the young adult staff and the club’s teenage patrons. According to Joe, those outside the Medusa’s community may have worried that teenagers and adults mixing in this way, within an all-night club, was “a recipe for something to go bad.” However, it was always clear to Joe that the Medusa’s culture was imbued with “a real sense of camaraderie” overall. This aspect of the club’s social scene also was remarked upon by former teenage patron Christina Stephens. She says that, as compared to the clubs she eventually frequented (when she was of legal drinking age), “Medusa’s still had a little ‘innocence’ about [it]” while Chicago’s other nightclubs “felt a little predatory.”
Alongside these reflections of community, former employees regard their time at Medusa’s as wedded to professional, creative, and personal agency. VJs Joe Michelli and Leroy Fields found freedom of expression by setting the tone for the club’s music culture. Joe shares with me that, in the video work he has done since, he has never enjoyed the same kind of full artistic license that he had at Medusa’s. He sees his role as having been both “content-creator” and “social anthropologist”—watching for the patrons’ responses to the unusual videos that he crafted specifically for the club. Joe liked to
sit and watch the audience reaction… you know: what does it take to keep people glued to the screen? What makes them laugh? What makes them go “eeee…..yuck!” (but in a good way)? What is a visual turn off? What’s cool?
Similarly, Leroy liked being able to put particular songs into heavy rotation and serve as a “tastemaker” for those who frequented the video room. For manager Rod Rushing, the community and freedom that Medusa’s provided resonated both creatively and personally. In his words:
I have come to realize that Medusa’s is really the place that I got to recognize that my ideas and my sensibilities had value and worth. I was part of something that was so much larger than myself and I fit in really well. This was quite a contrast from always living on the outside of the culture around me.
Moreover, and specifically in reference to his identity and the club’s contribution to Chicago’s alternative culture, Rod says: “As a small group of gay men who conjured [Medusa’s] up, I believe we all felt validated and vindicated” by the club’s success and impact.
For both its teenage patrons and its adult staff, Medusa’s provided a venue where the more conservative world outside its doors faded away: it was a true escape from everyday Chicago life. In establishing a nightclub where teenagers could explore and share in alternative sensibilities—created and nurtured by the unconventional young adults who worked there – the Medusa’s scene is significant in two distinct ways. First, Medusa’s, as an American nightclub, was a rare instance of a music venue that was consistently accessible to those under the legal drinking age of 21. Because of this, Medusa’s was able to introduce teenagers to music genres and subcultural styles that were mostly invisible within the country’s mainstream culture. Second, Medusa’s offered a uniquely queer-friendly environment to teenagers and young adults during the onset of the AIDS crisis. The level of openness at the club meant that people identifying outside the norms of Chicago’s conservative, Midwestern culture could be themselves within this community. Overall, Medusa’s aptly exemplifies Hollands’s notion of an “‘alternative’ space” and the importance of such places for unconventional young people.
Medusa’s created a distinctly alternative youth culture scene in Chicago during the 1980s. At the time, American teenagers often found out about such scenes through word of mouth. Friends would make each other mixtapes of songs they had first heard on a (local) college radio station, or an acquaintance might share details of a new record shop, café, or music venue that he or she had recently discovered (Kruse; Thornton 137–48). Non-mainstream youth culture scenes were such that young people either actively sought them out, hopeful that they eventually would find them, or they discovered them through happenstance–via friends, acquaintances, or simply by stumbling across the “right” place at the right time. As has been shown here, former Medusa’s patrons recall the club as a venue befitting their alternative sensibilities.
Today, the building that once housed Medusa’s shows no signs of its vibrant past. There is no plaque signifying what this place once was, and it is unlikely that most (if any) of its current residents know of the building’s history. Dave Shelton and his staff closed Medusa’s original location in June 1992 after years of battling noise complaints from local residents as well as the ire of “concerned” politicians. Teenagers who continued to hang out in the Lakeview neighborhood after the club’s closure (particularly around “Punkin’ Donuts”) were described as “Medusa’s Orphans” (Hart). The moniker suggests they had lost not just their favorite weekend haunt, but a guiding force in their lives. While the club lasted a few years into the 1990s, Medusa’s sensibilities remained indelibly linked to the spirit of the previous decade’s sounds and styles. Upon reflection, it is evident that the club provided an important alternative space for young Chicagoans. The American drinking age of 21 also meant that finding an all-ages nightclub – especially one catering to underground tastes – was difficult to do in the United States. Such rarity meant that it was not uncommon to meet teenagers from Iowa or Ohio who had traveled interstate to experience Medusa’s.
While even some former patrons compare the club’s social scene to the youth culture depicted in John Hughes’s teen films—maybe because their soundtracks included songs also played at Medusa’s—the venue hosted a much more progressive community (Stansel; Stephens). While “alternative” protagonists were featured in Hughes’s movies, these characters still often sought acceptance from their mainstream peers rather than standing their ground (Bleach 37–39). While some stylistically conservative teenagers also eventually frequented Medusa’s, it was not the case that these patrons felt they had to conform to a particular subcultural look. Instead, and as already made evident by testimony from former regulars, the Medusa’s scene was one that valued both authenticity and diversity.
Medusa’s serves as a compelling case study of how nightclubs have been important to youth culture. Ostensibly, 1980s-era teenagers were the last generation of young people to value physical spaces like Medusa’s as fully integral to developing their individual identities and sensibilities. While some young people still do frequent nightclubs, current reports suggest that millennials are less interested in them. Today’s teenagers and young adults often use virtual spaces for sociality and dialogue (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and for mediated forms of entertainment (music, videos) that traditionally have been the province of nightclubs (“Bid Farewell”; Burrell). Before the digital age, young people were much more reliant on physical sites for such engagement and activities. Melanie Eggleston observes that a venue like Medusa’s was “HUGE” for 1980’s teens—in an era “before cell phones, Internet” or, more extremely, the horror and fear of “mass shootings” in public places. Marina Claudio similarly suggests that
This type of club doesn’t exist anymore….This was a safe place. This was not a singles bar or a place where intoxication was a goal. It was very unique in that sense. I don’t think there is an equivalent these days.
In the 1980s, the excitement of sociality was bound primarily to places—and, for those alternative teenagers who grew up in Chicago during that time, the place was Medusa’s. Dave Haslam, a former DJ at Manchester’s famed Haçienda nightclub and author of Life after Dark: A History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues, states: “For so many people, nightclubs and music venues are the source of a lifetime’s music taste, best friends and vivid memories.” Thus, celebrating and helping document an era where music venues played an influential role is not lost on those who experienced Medusa’s.
This narrative has also offered a new perspective on American youth culture during the 1980s. It should not be enough to think of the 1980s and recall only MTV or John Hughes films. Nor is it appropriate to limit one’s vision of underground culture during this time to what was happening in California or New York. To truly understand the breadth and scope of youth culture history requires active investigation into the multiple cultures and scenes that have coexisted over time. In collecting testimony from those who experienced Medusa’s on Sheffield, it is evident that this nightclub was the premier site for Chicago’s alternative youth culture to flourish during the 1980s. For former patrons and employees, their memories and connotations of this decade will be forever linked to Medusa’s and its scene. This was a nightclub where “alternative” music and style signified belonging and broad-mindedness. It was the place that allowed young Chicagoans to dance into the diverse cohort of adults they would become.