When Bruce Finkelman opened the Empty Bottle in 1992, he says, “We wanted to create a place where we wanted to go, with the hopes that there’d be a few other people that would enjoy it as well.” Judging from the wealth of anecdotes and tributes in a new book about the music venue, it’s mission accomplished.
EMPTY BOTTLE BOOK RELEASE, FEATURING THE PONYS
When: 9 p.m. June 8
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Released this month by local publisher Curbside Splendor, “The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing” has more than 200 pages brimming with memories from bartenders, bookers and band members of Veruca Salt, OK Go, Dum Dum Girls and Interpol. There’s stories of the time the late Jay Reatard ripped the disco ball from the ceiling, a tribute to the resident house cat Radley (who passed away in 2009), and many versions of the mythical Flaming Lips show in the ’90s that lives on in legend.
“I really wanted the book to include everybody’s stories,” says Finkelman, recalling that the project originally kicked off two years ago with Curbside soliciting submissions from the public; many are still coming in and will be collected for a new online archive at emptybottle.com/eb25thstories.
“As I looked through some of them, even my recollections are a bit different,” he continues. “But that’s the way I wanted it. All the stories are very personal and about individual experiences, and that is at the very essence of what the Empty Bottle community has been and why it has lasted for all these years.”
Finkelman goes as far as to call the club “an ongoing collaboration” in one of his essays in the book, where he also talks about growing up the son of a meat-packer father, and initially hatching the idea for the Bottle after seeing all the punk rock kids spilling out of the former West End Club near his dad’s warehouse.
The Bottle’s first location was a no-frills tavern near Western and Walton in 1992, but after hosting a concert one night (and being scolded by the building’s landlord), Finkelman quickly moved the operation down the street to 1041 N. Western, where it stands today, regarded as one of the best venues in Chicago. “Rolling Stone” went so far as to name it one of the “The Best Rock Clubs in America.”
To further that point, the book features a number of original concert posters, time capsule photographs (including one incredible shot of late siger-songwriter Elliott Smith), and a running log of all the shows Empty Bottle has ever hosted.
“The visual component was important to show the history of the club,” says editor John E. Dugan, a freelance music writer and former drummer of Chisel, who played a few gigs at Empty Bottle. “I always felt like it was one of my home bases in Chicago,” he admits, and part of his objective with the book was to “get closer to the inside of the place,” which was done with various forms of media and contributors. “It’s amazing to see the lines between fan, employee and musician get kind of blurred as the book goes on.”
The book’s release comes just a few months shy of the Bottle’s 25th anniversary, which Finkelman says will be celebrated with a special concert series that will “recreate shows of old,” starting with the reunion of Chicago indie fuzz vets The Ponys who have been dormant since 2009.
“They’re family,” says Finkelman, who specifically courted the group for one of the first book release shows (Blonde Redhead is booked June 7). The Ponys’ frontman Jered Gummere worked for years as head bartender and guitarist Brian Case was a regular who says he found a sort of mentorship with the club’s owner.
“[Bruce] let me go there before he should have,” Case jokes. “And over the years, he’s given all my bands a lot of opportunities to play and learn how to be a better band. There’s a sense that what you are doing is important and they’re there to help — and a lot of clubs don’t care about that. …Everybody who is in a band, big to small, has played the Bottle, and I don’t know any of them who could tell you about a bad experience.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.