Remembering Lounge Ax: Ten Years After

October 1st, 2009by John RussickFiled under: Collections

Lounge Ax exterior

Loved by rock fans and a favorite hang out of local musicians, Lounge Ax emerged as a leading Chicago nightclub during the height of Chicago’s post-punk rock and alt-country scene between 1987 and 2000, becoming legendary as one of the best places to hear alternative and indie rock. Located across the street from the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was gunned down, the small club often drew crowds at night that spilled out onto the sidewalk along Lincoln Avenue.

Known for their fresh and varied musical tastes, owners Julia Adams and Sue Miller lit up the Lounge Ax stage for big and small acts alike; including the alt-country bands Uncle Tupelo and the Old 97’s; Hoboken, New Jersey natives and indie rock elders, Yo La Tengo; and many, many Chicago acts including Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, and Eleventh Dream Day. Lounge Ax not only served as a rock club, it also featured Brigid Murphy’s sketch comedy production, “Milly’s Orchid Show,” which featured acts such as The Blue Man Group, David Sedaris, Nora Dunn, and Robbie and Donna Fulks.

Despite its cramped space, the bar retained its appeal—hosting hundreds and hundreds of indie rock acts during its 12-year stint. However, as with many other neighborhood bars, pressure from real estate expansion and the Liquor Commission as well as noise complaints from neighbors, legal fees, and the poor building conditions forced Lounge Ax to close after a new landlord purchased the building and gave the club 6 weeks to vacate. But Lounge Ax did not go down without a fight. Stories in the Chicago Tribune by rock critic Greg Kot and a compilation CD produced by Touch & Go records entitled “The Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compilation Disc,” the proceeds of which went to help defray legal costs, tried to save the club from closing.

In early January 2000, Lounge Ax kicked off a two-week-long finale before its doors finally shut on Saturday, January 15, 2000. The last few days attracted a huge number of fans and musicians to mark the end of this legendary music venue in Chicago.

current Lounge Ax exterior

In later incarnations, the building became a hybrid bar/club called Gramercy. Currently, it is home to the Soiree Bar Bistro. Lounge Ax was also featured in the movie High Fidelity (2000). Shot in the interior of the bar, Lounge Ax is where Rob Gordon (John Cusack) first encounters singer/songwriter Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet).

The Chicago History Museum wants to document the history of Lounge Ax. If you have objects or images to donate to the museum please fill out our donation form. If, like me, you’re left with only memories, please share them with us by writing a comment below. Or just tell us why you think Lounge Ax is worth remembering, even if the memories are a bit hazy.

> Chicago History Museum artifact donation form

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18 Responses to “Remembering Lounge Ax: Ten Years After”

  1. Mikely Says:

    A Lounge Ax ad in the Chicago Reader listed a band playing on June 12, 1998 as “Rhymes With Bilco.”

  2. Kim Says:

    Hands down, it was my favorite place to see music in Chicago. I made a lot of friends there.

  3. Colette Says:

    I met most of my friends there. Even married one of them. Every time I think about Lounge Ax not being there anymore, it feels like getting punched in the gut. It was like losing a friend.

  4. Mark Says:

    I miss it every single day.

  5. Heath Row Says:

    Weren’t the Coctails the house band for a spell? I’d reach out to Archer, Mark, etc. to see whether they have any solid leads.

  6. Paul Says:

    I remember standing next to the front door and the photo machine, watching a Chicago band with skepticism and a furrowed brow. After two songs, I walked up to the stage to hear their thrid song, then immediately headed back to my position by the front door, thinking, \this band is brutal.\ The band: The Smashing Pumpkins. Other great memories were seeing Uncle Tupelo come out and \frisbee\ a Dominoes Pizza box lid down on the stage with their songs listed and proceed to rip my head off with their whiskey ladened punk rock songs. Also the much under rated Velvet Crush in their prime delivering sun drenched harmonies like I had never heard before. Great place. Cool and passionate employees. Insticts for booking. A crap location with uptight neighbors and alderman. Thanks for the memories.

  7. Brad Bornac Says:

    I saw a lot of great shows there, but a night that jumps to mind was the White Stripes first Chicago gig, probably in 1998. The Waco Bros. were headlining and I spent the entire White Stripes set explaining Jon Langford’s place in history of rock to some friends. While I was dwelling on the past, I missed a great chance to hear one of the future’s important voices…I do remember those great matching outfits they had, though.

  8. Eric Says:

    Drove from Philadelphia to the Lounge Ax in Aug of 1992 to see the Gear Daddies final shows before they called it quits….

  9. Neil Says:

    Tremendous place. Don’t forget that WaxTrax! was across the street. I wish I had known at the time just how special Lounge Ax was. I was too busy being rocked and taking it for granted.

  10. Liz Says:

    I awoke cranky this morning from a Lounge Ax dream. I have about 2 per week and usually they are happy, but this morning’s was fraught with angst. I had the privilege of working in that incredibly creative and familial community for nearly a decade. I have a photo-booth book of fame containing pics listed in chronological order of me and many of the bands that played there throughout the 90’s. I cherish this book as I would any family photo album. I miss Lounge Ax and my Lounge Ax friends and family. Luckily, some of us have recently reunited in Los Angeles! God it was such a great place! I think the scene has changed too much to ever have another place like it, but I hope I’m wrong.

  11. Tom Susala Says:

    I remember going to Lounge Ax to jam with Betsy and the Boneshakers..Many good times

  12. Carl Says:

    If you really want to know about the origins on how Lounge Ax was started, you need to seek out the person who conceptulized and incubated the place, whos brother gave the seed money to start it. That would be Jennifer Fischer, a former cocktail waitress at the Vic Theatre who’s first music venue was a short-lived blues bar on Michigan ave., a few steps north of Roosevelt rd.. After that place failed to catch on, Jennifer’s brother Dean, a partner at Arthur Andersen at the time, financed her latest idea the Lounge Ax. If it wasn’t for these two people, Lounge Ax would of never existed. When Susie Miller was brought in to the Lounge Ax after the late great West End Club (located at Racine and Armitage and was a much better sounding and cozier music club then Lounge Ax ever was, that hosted many remarkable bands of the 80’s independent movement, including first time appearances by Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Replacements to name a few) died out to neighborhood pressure and owner neglect, something happened between the 3 partners, and Jennifer left.
    I always thought the Lounge Ax was a harsh sounding room that was reconfigured a few times to accommadate bigger crowds. Though it was next to impossible to park there sometimes, Lounge Ax in my opinion succeeded on it’s location more then anything eise.

  13. Steve Says:

    I’ve still got second-hand smoke in my lungs from going there.

  14. Laura Heller - Second City Nitty Gritty – Remembering Lounge Ax - True/Slant Says:

    […] is, in the minds of many. Ten years after hosting its last show, the Chicago History Museum’s blog is a good trip down memory lane. Known for their fresh and varied musical tastes, owners Julia […]

  15. Mark Says:

    To the poster Carl’s post:

    Though yes, Jennifer Fisher WAS there at the beginning (the first two years), it was the partnership of Sue Miller and Julia Adams that MADE Lounge Ax what we all know and miss. Sue and Julia turned what was prety much a local club into one of the best regarded rock clubs/stages in the country for small to mid-sized touring rock bands. I also beg to differ that the location was the ‘success’ of the club and in fact I will say that it was the single biggest issue that hurt the club due to lack of parking and a general disconnect from the yuppie neighborhood in the latter days. Lounge Ax was built on specific audiences who made the trek for specific shows. It had very little to do with street traffic walking in to see what was going on (like that of its many TV blaring/hot wing serving neighbors)… therefore it could have been in Berwyn or Pilson or freaking Downers Grover and it would have still been as great as it was. It was a destination, not just some bar trying to scoop in passerby’s. What made the club great was its booking, it’s defining presence as a provider of great lesser know talent, and the shows… not the configuration of the room or the provider of the original seed money. People saw life-changing shows there and that is why it is missed..

  16. Max Says:

    When you’re on the road with a band, it’s nice (and very rare), to be treated like human beings, instead of
    just another band on the booking conveyer belt. Lounge Ax was great at making you feel like a part of their family, even if you were just passing through.

  17. Scott Says:

    My first local band, Slummingbirds, played a couple of shows at Lounge Ax, which was always an honor, even if we only got Tuesday night slots. I still have a big crack in the front of my bass from the time I smashed it onto the Lounge Ax stage to end our last-ever show together. Only time I’ve ever done that…

    I saw too many great shows there to count. Jim Carroll (RIP) was a highlight. I saw my first of many Calexico shows. Our friends the Baldwin Brothers opened for this new Welsh band Super Furry Animals – I’ve been a big SFA fan ever since. Hearing them sample Steely Dan at Lounge Ax was deliciously unexpected, to say the least. Wesley Willis said he was going to kill himself on stage once (he later recanted).

    Godspeed You Black Emperor was by far the most packed LAX show I ever saw (among many a full house), during the final two week blowout, which was the saddest, greatest two weeks of live music I can recall.

    My hands-down favorite Lounge Ax factoid is that my wife Alisa and I were both at the same King Kong show, months before we even met, among no more than 20 people in the audience that night. Traveling back in time has never been big on my wishlist, but if I could go back to Lounge Ax and meet Alisa a few months earlier at that King Kong show, I’d do it in a second.

  18. C Says:

    Lounge Ax is what made me move to Chicago.
    I was listening to Jesus lizard and big black and
    by early 1991 when alex chilton was playing a lot
    I just said F it and moved here.
    Legendary shows–Jesus lizards 3 night stint in 95,
    Nick cave coming to see palace brothers, red krayola,
    Faust, hasil adkins…

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