Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Getting to Know Rainbo Club Through Its Regulars

October 2012


There are neighborhood bars—somewhere you don’t have to work to get a seat or the bartender’s attention, a dive that you like in a non-ironic way. And then there are bars that define a neighborhood. While the personality of Wicker Park seems malleable, as aspiring hotspots dilute the bohemian character that brought the area attention, it’s probably a safe bet that the role of local fixture will be played by the Rainbo Club, a shot-and-a-beer saloon on Damen at Division, for the foreseeable future.

Rainbo’s current incarnation started in October 1985. After past lives as both a polka bar and a watering hole in the Wicker Park of author Nelson Algren, the building was bought that year by Dee Taira and her partner, Gavin Morrison. The sprawling wooden bar, small white stage and red-vinyl booths have been maintained pretty much as purchased.

What changed was the clientele and staff, increasingly more artsy by demographics—as the ethnically diverse neighborhood became populated by artists, musicians and hipsters, and spots like the now-shuttered café Urbis Orbis—and by design, as ownership made it a point to support those artists with jobs and use the Rainbo’s walls as gallery space. In ’90s, the bar was a scene, a frequent hangout for local rock bands and musicians such as Urge Overkill, Tortoise and Liz Phair (the famous Exile in Guyville cover was taken in the Rainbo’s photo booth), and a fixture in the area’s social life. Here to tell the bar’s story are Taira, Phair and some key players from over the years.

Dee Taira, Rainbo Club owner: “I had a partner, Gavin Morrison, and we were looking for a bar, and a friend of ours told us about the Rainbo Club, which was vacant at the time. We bought it from Rose Podulka, who had been there since 1935. The myth is, half the bar used to be a drugstore, and the other half used to be a speakeasy. After Prohibition, one guy, I don’t know who, built the stage in there for his wife, who was a singer. Shortly thereafter, she died, and he sold the bar to John and Rose Podulka.”

Ken Ellis, Rainbo bartender: “When it first opened, it was a much more painterly crowd, but then we had the music people. The room always looked like this. The windows have never been open. Supposedly there was a kitchen back in the ’60s.”

Dee Taira: “The neighborhood was pretty desolate and burnt out, and pretty much full of junkies and prostitutes. The gas station has been here forever. The Community Bank was an old Standard station, and you’d walk through it and step on crack pipes and needles. The other side was a bakery, don’t know how long, but it was a pretty nice bakery. But because of that, there were a lot of artists and musicians who could get cheap loft space.”

Ken Ellis: “I’ve been in the bar business since ’77. Worked at Chicago’s first punk rock bar, La Mere Vipere, worked at O’Banyon’s, then worked at Neo. Gavin Morrison, one of the managers and an original partner, asked me if I wanted to work at Rainbo. I just liked the room. Back then this neighborhood was a lot different. It was kind of dangerous coming over here. Every night we’d have someone’s car getting broken into.”

Zoe Zolbrod: writer (Currency) and editor and Rainbo regular: “One thing I really liked was that the bar was more elegant. It has that stage, the woodwork … it was a bit classier. It was a secret place. Inside was different than what you’d expect from the outside. When I first went in 1989, we got there early, because there weren’t very many people when we first walked in. I do remember that James Brown was playing. I haven’t been there for awhile, but if Kenny is still working there, I imagine James Brown is still an early staple at the Rainbo. Then the place just filled up to the brim with what I saw as super-cool bohemian types. They weren’t all super young, but they all weren’t punk rockers. The kind of places I would seek out at that time would have just been filled with punk rockers, so the Rainbo seemed like the coolest thing in the world. Then, going into the bathroom with the flowers, that seemed like the coolest thing in the world.”

Tim Kinsella, musician, Joan of Arc member, Rainbo bartender: “There was a lot of getting fucked with. I remember there was a year one summer where I think I saw three cars get blown up. Like, gang bangers were literally blowing up each other’s cars.”

Zoe Zolbrod: “I moved to Wicker Park in 1990 and gentrification was already happening, people were already moving in. When my mom dropped me off, she was like wow, lots of boarded up stores, guys hanging in the corner. Hoyne was one of the earliest streets to gentrify. You’d go a block west and there were people hanging out playing mariachi music or salsa music. I remember walking down the street when my mom saw another parent moving their kid in. She said ‘we tried to move out of the city and now they want to come back in.'”

Dmitry Samarov, painter and author (Hack), cab driver and Rainbo regular: “See, I wasn’t in bands, and I came in here and saw John Haggerty working the bar. The guitar player from Naked Raygun, whom I listened to in high school, was serving me drinks. It still sort of fucks with my head.”

John Herndon, musician, Tortoise drummer, Rainbo bartender: “It’s amazing how many people I see that I served drinks to in 1988. They’re still coming in.”

Tim Kinsella: “In ’95 and ’96, I lived at Hoyne and Iowa. The first time I came to the Rainbo, Smog was playing a secret show, and I was a big Smog fan. I remember walking in and being like, ‘What the fuck is up with this place? Does everyone here know each other?’ It was weird and intimidating. I felt super vibed.”

Liz Phair, Musician: “The only bad thing about the Rainbo was a flip side of the best thing: it was always the same crowd. So if you were feeling great that night and sociable, it was like drinking in your living room. But if you were in the dog house with anybody, say, for being loud and arrogant while intoxicated the night before, it was a real gauntlet. And on a cold winter’s night, who could be bothered trudging any farther to reach a more anonymous establishment?”

Ken Ellis: “Dee knows how to run a bar. All you need to do is have liquor in the place, open the doors and treat your customers right. That’s all you need to do to get customers coming back. That’s what we try to do.”

Tim Kinsella: “When I was undergrad in college, my girlfriend would hang out here all the time with her friend. They had fake IDs, and this was their favorite place to meet older guys in bands.”

Dmitry Samarov:: “Every girl I’ve talked to at the Rainbo has called it a meat market, and no guy I’ve ever talked to has said that because there are so many more guys that come here.”

John Herndon:: “It was predominantly men. I think that’s where the title Exile in Guyville comes from, the Rainbo Club. That cover photo was taken here.”

Liz Phair:: “Basically, Matador (Records) hated the cover I’d originally sent and asked Nash Kato from Urge Overkill to stage an intervention. We had to turn it around immediately and he art directed a photo booth shot because it was what was available at that hour. Truthfully, we were just sitting there drinking with him bossing me around. Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Dmitry Samarov:: “I never thought I’d need a place outside of home or work, that third place. This was the place that made me realize that. For me, it wasn’t about the drinking.”

Tim Kinsella: “To me, in my early 20s, it was amazing. You’d meet DJs and free jazz artists and guys making computer music and guys in rock bands, it seemed like everyone was real open to each other. There was a huge cross pollination, which was very inspiring to me when I was young.”

Liz Phair:: “Everybody making music in the area showed up there at least some of the time so it was a nexus of idea exchange: biz, art, gossip, what’s new, etc.”

John Herndon:: “When I first started working here, our cheap beer was Leinenkugels. We didn’t have pints, we had 10- or 12-ouncers, and they were a buck. $1 Leines. Whisky has always been very popular, Maker’s Mark for sure. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have Maker’s Mark. I think back in the day it was maybe $2.50 for a shot. Rarely did people get the shots. We’d put them in a short glass, a lot of whiskey for cheap. Then, occasionally, people would want mixed drinks, doesn’t get much fancier than a margarita or a bloody mary. We used to serve them with these amazing homemade Hungarian sausages Dee would keep in a Tupperware container.”

Zoe Zolbrod: “It was a smoky bar. I smoked a lot, most people I know smoked a lot, and if you didn’t, you basically smoked a lot. I can’t imagine what I smelled like from the night before walking into a job.”
John Herndon:: “It was insane, you couldn’t wear your clothes again, even if you came in for 10 minutes to say hi to people. Sometimes it would be so smoky, it would give you a headache. I liked the fact that it was a place where everyone could just sit down and get their vices on. It’s important to have a spot like that, where people could just let all their shit hang out.”

Dmitry Samarov:: “Ken used to say after the smoking ban came into play, ‘Now you can smell everyone’s farts and BO. There were so many people smoking in here, it covered up everything.'”

Ken Ellis: “At one point, this was the main hangout for Urge Overkill. Those guys were wild men, out for a good time. Leroy Bach, he worked here, played with Liz Phair, he’s played with Wilco, all these other bands. John Herndon, aka Johnny Machine, he’s with Tortoise. Most of these cats are with more than one band. Not everyone here plays something, but they’re all musical.”

Tim Kinsella: “It seems like there’s some stamp for those outside of Chicago they put on your passport. Oh, you play music and you’re moving to Chicago? Go to Rainbo and meet every band.”

Liz Phair:: “The members of Urge Overkill and Material Issue, Red Red Meat and Eleventh Dream Day, among others, were regulars. Sometimes Drag City Dan K and Dan O. Johnny, Jimmy and Janet were my favorite representatives behind the bar. They were all musicians as well. I loved how the Rainbo was musical in front of and behind the bar. You could always count on the bartenders to play killer music you may not have heard before. That was half of its appeal—the playlist.”

John Herndon: “Veruca Salt, Eleventh Dream Day, Joan of Arc, Urge Overkill, the guys from Trenchmouth all used to hang out here. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of people. Yo La Tengo played here one time. I’m wondering if Stereolab played here, for some reason I think that they did. High Llamas played here—they played over in the corner and the string section was on the stage. Mike Watt played a set on stage here after a Firehose gig.”

Tim Kinsella: “There aren’t many shows here now. There were more than there were now, maybe once or twice a month. It was pre-Internet, before it was ubiquitous. A word-of-mouth show was literally that. It wasn’t like someone twittered ‘Palace Brothers playing at Rainbo.'”

Zoe Zolbrod: “To me the Rainbo was the heart of the neighborhood, and it wasn’t just me. I feel like almost every night you’d pass through the Rainbo, even if you were going to another party or show or something. I loved being able to go through and count on knowing somebody.”

John Herndon:: “I haven’t worked here in so long on the regular, but man, back in the day, people mobbed the photo booth. I think a lot of crazy shit has gone on in that photo booth. We’d just watch girls take their shirts off. Lots of making out in there, like, maybe some babies were conceived in there. It was definitely the spot for people who loved themselves a lot and wanted to see themselves, like here’s my broken ass again. But then everybody’s house that I would go to would have a whole refrigerator plastered with their photos from the Rainbo. I still have so many photos.”

Liz Phair:: “Saturday nights were when the neighborhood regulars left the Rainbo to the touristy suburbanites and headed deeper into the sketchy Western parts where car-jacking and real alcoholism lived.”

Zoe Zolbrod: “I felt like it was a special time. My friends and I talk about that, but everyone feels like that when they’re 22, hanging out all the time, going to band and art shows. I don’t know how it compares to being 22 10 years later. One difference might have been the timing and the economy. The real estate boom and the economy popped and it really sped up the changes there.”

Dee Taira: “Here’s the thing, it’s my staff. People that lived around here I employed. There’s the ones who brought in bands, their friends are musicians and artists, they’re the ones that are responsible for the clientele. The people who helped shape the bar the most are Michael Cergizan, James Garbe and Ken Ellis. After Gavin died in 1987, they are the ones who stood by me and helped the most.”

Ken Ellis: “The frat boys have chased away the gang bangers. That’s so fucked up. And to tell you the truth, I miss the gang bangers. You knew what you were going to get with the gang bangers. They didn’t come in like they were all entitled with their baseball caps turned backwards. I don’t mind them. As long as someone is well behaved, I don’t care who comes in here. A staunch right-wing Republican can come in here and have a drink if they want, as long as they’re well behaved.”

Dee Taira: “I kind of have mixed feelings about it. We don’t have the freedom we used to have when there was no police over here. The neighborhood has been stamped with a suburban stamp. There are very few things that are run by individuals. It seems like it’s more corporate.”

John Herndon:: “There used to be a great Mexican bakery next door where you could get a great espresso. I actually have a big ‘S’ in my place from that bakery’s sign. When that closed and the condos came in, we knew we were fucked.”

Dee Taira: “The new crowd thinks they’re entitled to everything, some of them are kind of rude and don’t treat our bartenders very well, Our problem is our bartenders give it back, and we get a bit of a reputation of being rude. I don’t care for people who treat people like that, and I don’t expect my staff to sit there and take it.”

Ken Ellis: “We get a lot of requests for bombs. We don’t serve anything that has to do with bombing. We’re not into bombing, we’re a peace loving people here. Anything with that energy drink Red Bull, it ain’t happening. We’re a saloon. Get a drink and a shot. If you want something fancy, got to Violet Hour, a place with mixologists. I’m no mixologist, I’m a bartender. Sounds like you need a degree or something. This isn’t chemistry, this is mixing drinks. As long as the beer is cold and the liquor is strong…”

Dmitry Samarov:: “The other unique thing about this bar is the owner has made it a home for people who aren’t necessarily suited for the service industry. That aren’t the friendliest and the most outgoing, they have their own shit going on. She’s giving them a place to work. As a regular, it took me years to break through the wall.”

Tim Kinsella: It’s way cheaper than any other bar, practically speaking. Dee made a decision long ago that she wasn’t going to cash in on the real estate change in the neighborhood, and be fair to the people that come here. It establishes a certain type of loyalty.”

John Herndon:: “People will come in who aren’t from the neighborhood, they seem like tourists to me, and order a round of drinks. I’ll tell them the price, and they say, ‘Wow, I’m coming here all the time!’ And they never come back.”

Dmitry Samarov:: “As an artist, I like having stuff here because people say stuff about your art that you’d never hear them say to your face. Unfortunately, people feel the need to be polite and consider people’s feelings, and that’s a bad way to look at art. The thing you made should stand up by its own, you shouldn’t have to stand next to it and prop it up.”

Dee Taira: “It started with my partner, he knew a lot more artists than I did. A friend of ours, Bill Bigelow, he asked if he could put his art up. It sort of barrelrolled into what it is today.”

Ken Ellis: “It’s all about supporting the arts. It’s very important. People in arts don’t get supported that much. Our art show changes every month. A lot of artists sell art out of here and we never take a penny. I’ve sold a lot of art out of here myself. I’ve seen a lot of good art, and a lot of bad art, but it sells, and it’s a good venue for young artists. A lot of people who display here are in school, probably the first place that they’ve shown. I’ve done art all my life, and I like showing here better than galleries.”

Tim Kinsella: “I think Dee definitely thinks, like I do, this was supposed to be a summer job that lasted 13 years. I remember in 2003, writing on the board in the back, ‘Tim needs off March to October.’ When I came back my shifts were still here. What kind of job can you do that? There’s always more people working here than shifts to go around because someone’s always on tour. That kind of loyalty, she respects it.”

Dee Taira: “If your passion is music or art, I believe that should be your life, and we try to accommodate our staff. Everybody knows you can’t live off of any type of art right away.”

Ken Ellis: “I love this job. It’s hard to love a bar job, but I love it here. As far as the bar business, you can’t find anyone better to work with than Dee. It feels like it’s been one long night with periodic breaks for me.”

Tim Kinsella: “The world changes and this room stays exactly the same. So many people must come in here and be like, this is our place. People who have probably never seen each other feel like this is their place. This has become shorthand, a meeting place, part of the neighborhood. ‘Oh, we’ll meet at the Rainbo.'”

Dee Taira: “All I did was make sure we had affordable drinks for people that don’t have much money. We try to keep it that way because there’s still a lot of students, artists and musicians who don’t have much money.”

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