Welcome to Tattoodo's Punk Rock Week! We're celebrating everything punk this week — from some scary dudes in New Jersey to heartbroken nerds from SoCal, and everything in between. We bitched about how being a NOFX fan used to be fun and weird, but now it's just problematic. And what would Punk Rock Week be without a little something about The Ramones. Now I reminisce about the place where I first found my love of punk rock — Chicago's Fireside Bowl — with some tattoos of the bands that made it so special.
In 1994 my parents decided to move from the progressive East Bay of San Francisco to a farm town of 10,000 people in Illinois. To call it culture shock would be a gross understatement. I was 14 years old and was lifted out of the most liberal area of the country where my plaid pants and Dead Kennedys shirt never got a second glance and placed in a town that routinely stopped traffic to allow tractors and combines to drive over the narrow bridge. It was hell. At least it felt that way until I met some like-minded kids at school and made my first trip to the Fireside Bowl.
All these years later I can’t remember the first show I went to at that Chicago landmark — there’s a very good chance that either Deals Gone Bad or the Arrivals were involved given the insane number of times I saw them there — but I remember everything about the place. The dilapidated bowling pin sign above the door. Hammer, the diminutive bartender with Mickey Mouse’s voice and an enormous fake gold anchor hanging from his neck, working the door. The oven-level heat that assaulted you once you stepped inside. The ceiling tiles missing from above the stage, and, of course the infamous worst bathroom in the midwest (where I once saw some amorous skinheads going at it in a fit of passion/complete disregard or hygiene). It was at once both a disgusting punk dive of a club and the most beautiful place I’d ever been.
Of course, the best dive in the world wouldn’t get a reputation as a great venue if it wasn’t for the bands that called the place home, and Chicago’s punk scene was vibrant and eclectic in the ‘90s. Part of what made going to shows at the Fireside so much fun was that they didn’t stick to only booking bands that had a certain sound. So you could see hardcore legends Los Crudos, pop-punkers Screeching Weasel, and a truly weird ska/metal/whatever band like the Blue Meanies on the same stage, sometimes on the same night. Chicago’s scene was remarkably inclusive and fun, there wasn’t the aggression that you’d find in other punk scenes, and the Fireside Bowl was its home.
I have so many memories of the Fireside Bowl that they all sort of blur together. There was Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms going on a long diatribe about the militarization of the police during a tribute show for Amadou Diallo, and there was the time that we all saw way too much of Paddy’s ass during a Dillinger Four show. I remember people bracing up the monitors as kids ran into them more times than I can count, and I’m pretty damn sure someone from World Inferno Friendship Society may have set a ceiling tile on fire. I saw Slapstick’s last show there and Rise Against’s first.
More than anything I remember seeing Wesley Willis. While his music was not exactly punk rock, Willis’ ethos sure as hell was. Willis was a gargantuan man — well over 6 feet tall and over 400 pounds — and he seemed to take up the entire stage. He opened his set by chugging a can of Diet Coke and screaming “rock n roll,” and then launched into one of his songs about performing a sex act on an animal. I can’t remember if it was “Lick my Doberman’s Dick” or “Suck a Camel’s Ass,” but it was pure insanity. But it was also just another night at the Fireside Bowl, not unlike so many other nights. I left the show sweaty, exhausted, and with a touch of a headache from a salutary head butt courtesy of the headliner.
Rock over London, Rock on Chicago, The Fireside Bowl, you will be missed.