A Cloud Over Clubland
The situation the owners of Lounge Ax have found themselves in is an example of the repercussions the city's strict liquor laws can have on valuable and law-abiding institutions. The situation seems intractable. Since there's little money to be made in rock 'n' roll, the live-music industry--on the club level at least--has become a subset of the liquor industry. Since most bars, even most of the ones that provide live music, are little more than watering holes, it makes sense for the city to monitor them closely. Alcohol causes a lot of problems, and there's nothing wrong with the city keeping a clamp on drunk people and the businesses that feed them booze. Still, you wish there was a way for the city to say, well, this venue and that venue contribute a lot to the city and seem to be pretty cleanly run; let's give them a break. But what's the city going to do? Treat bars differently based on their booking policies?
Yet by not doing something the city has brought Lounge Ax to its current position, which is tenuous. A yearlong funnel of trouble, which began with a neighbor's complaints about noise and escalated into a Byzantine mess, has cost the club thousands of dollars and put its existence in peril. According to one reading of city regulations, the club is operating without a necessary license and should be shut down. But everything's unclear. Ask the city what exactly the club is up against and you get an ominous answer: "The case is in the law department for filing of charges," says liquor czar Winston Mardis. Charges of what? "I can't comment on a case that's under investigation."
Back to the beginning: Superbooker Sue Miller has used a network of contacts and a large store of goodwill from adoring bands to give Lounge Ax a national reputation far out of proportion to its cramped confines, not to mention liner-note thank-yous on countless albums. Miller and her partner, Julia Adams, say that they began getting complaints about noise in January of last year from a neighbor in one of the buildings that backs onto the rear of the club in the alley behind Lincoln north of the Lincoln-Fullerton-Halsted intersection. What happened over the next few months is described differently by the parties involved. The neighbor (who didn't wish to be named) says that the pair "said all the right things" but that the problem never went away. Adams and Miller say that they were attentive to his problems, going so far as to soundproof the back of the club at a cost of several thousand dollars. When they stopped hearing from him, they thought things were fine--until they received a notice to appear at a hearing before Mardis, who heads the city's liquor-control commission.
The pair say they didn't know what prompted the hearing until they arrived and saw the neighbor. Mardis heard from both parties and then stopped the proceedings to deliver a shocking announcement. He said Miller and Adams didn't have the right license--for "places of public amusement"--and that Lounge Ax was thereby closed. Lounge Ax stayed open, and began drawing nightly citations from beat cops.
For his part, the neighbor says he's not trying to shut Lounge Ax down, noting that he and others who are disturbed by the noise could have hired a lawyer, taken a petition around, or harassed the club about the noise nightly. "It's not our intention to put them out of business," he says. "It's about sleep." I asked both him and another complaining neighbor the obvious question--how they differed from someone who moves into a house beneath an O'Hare flight path and complains about the planes. Neither had much of an answer. "We have not imposed on them," one of them said. "We never said you've got to stop playing music."
Adams and Miller say that they'd asked the city about the PPA license when it was created several years ago and were told they didn't need one. Between the liquor commission's flat-out refusal to discuss anything and the unavailability of several key aldermen and aldermanic aides, Hitsville has yet to get a straightforward account of what the PPA law requires. However, it seems that the law was indeed designed to encompass clubs like Lounge Ax: One aldermanic aide says the intent is to distinguish bars that are in the entertainment business from those that are neighborhood taverns, which Lounge Ax isn't. Here an element of catch-22 may come into play, though I couldn't get anyone in the city to confirm this: Miller and Adams say that PPA licenses are not allowed under current Lincoln Avenue zoning. In such situations a business would normally turn to Alderman Charles Bernardini. A complicating factor is Miller and Adams's well-known self-reliance: a reluctance to ask for favors might have prevented them from enlisting help from him early on; while Bernardini has said he supports the club, a staffer in his office says once the dispute got into the hands of the liquor commission it became difficult for him to step in.
Can anything help the club? Perhaps. Problems like Lounge Ax's are prompting the city to take another look at the law. Meanwhile, Touch and Go Records has stepped in with a benefit CD. Lounge Ax: Defense and Relocation includes unreleased tracks from the Jesus Lizard, Shellac, Guided by Voices, the Mekons, and ten other groups; it will be out at the end of the month, and a benefit show is being planned for late June. Details in weeks to come.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.