The Empty Bottle in Chicago is the last great indie rock dive bar standing. It’s a spot that seemed like a good place to host bands at some point because it simply existed, but went on to become legendary. As Brian Case of the Ponys and Disappears says in The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing*, *the forthcoming book about the Chicago venue edited by John Dugan, “It’s a rock club with no other ambition than being a rock club, and that goes a long way these days.”
But big “rock clubs” like New York City’s Bowery Ballroom—people don’t hang out there when there isn’t a show, and it’s definitely not a neighborhood spot. The Bottle, on the other hand, is a bar you can go and drink at before the music starts up, a beautiful little mess that might actually be held together by all the band stickers stuck to the walls. Somebody might not walk in there and immediately think, “The Flaming Lips and Uncle Tupelo played here,” they’d probably just assume that the place has seen some shit. Yet that’s exactly the kind of music the venue has specialized in since 1992, when Bruce Finkelman decided to open a spot in a part of town that you probably didn’t visit unless you lived there or knew somebody who did. That’s why it became the club every underground band the world over needed to hit up while traversing across the post-Nirvana indie rock landscape.
In 1992, hardly anybody cared about the kinds of bands the Bottle had on its stage, and real estate in its Ukrainian Village neighborhood wasn’t skyrocketing. Along with clubs like the Metro, Lounge Ax, and Fireside Bowl (the bowling alley that nobody bowled at), the Bottle was part of a small batch of clubs that helped launch careers for bands from Jesus Lizard and Wilco, hosted everybody from Neutral Milk Hotel to Yo La Tengo throughout the 1990s, gave a home to burgeoning genres like Chicago alt-country and post-rock, and did it independently of big corporate sponsorship or a ton of national attention. The Metro was the first, an early haven for Chicago house and industrial music. Lounge Ax opened right down the street from DePaul University in 1987, just before “college rock” was called “alternative.” Fireside was the all-ages punk club. And the Empty Bottle was the 21+ place where underage kids might pass and wonder what was going on behind the big black front door and the glass brick of a window that made it impossible to see what was going on inside, besides a few flashing lights.
Time and money changes everything. The Fireside turned back into a bowling alley that didn’t have nightly live music in 2004, and Lounge Ax closed in 2000, as the neighborhood it was located in—Lincoln Park—filled with “trendy restaurants, stylish boutiques and affluent young professionals,” going from a mostly Puerto Rican and working class into a part of town too expensive for a weird little club. The Metro is still around, now oftentimes playing home base to bigger act looking to play an intimate setting. But the Bottle is still going strong, doing the same thing it has always done. It’s like that person who works at the record store who might seem like a dick, but will never give you a bad suggestion.