This year marks a quarter century since the closing of Medusa’s, Chicago’s most famous all-ages nightclub. Named after its gloriously coiffed owner, airline-employee-turned-impresario Dave “Medusa” Shelton, the late-night dance venue and art space on Sheffield Avenue achieved something unprecedented during its nine-year run: It brought together all of Chicago’s long-segregated nightlife tribes in a single throbbing melting pot. Goths, skinheads, punks, black house-music fans, white Boystown denizens, closeted suburban honor-roll kids—they all converged on Medusa’s vast dance floor or in the rooms upstairs, where performance artists staged outlandish live exhibitions involving everything from fake blood to mutilated mannequin parts.
Billing itself as a “juice bar,” the cavernous Lake View club sold no alcohol—there were convenience stores for that—and it stayed open until the dancing stopped, which was often midmorning the next day. Its teen dance parties, which increasingly became the club’s focus in its later years, were a rite of passage for a generation of high schoolers, and the music was as eclectic as the clientele: funk, electronic, R&B, industrial, punk, ska, house, even pop. Live bands were part of the mix, too—little-known artists who’d go on to fame: Al Jourgensen, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billy Corgan, the Violent Femmes, Front 242.
For countless Chicagoans, Medusa’s was a portal to the city’s counterculture. Those already on the other side saw it as a refuge, a community, and, above all, a playground. Its rise and ultimate fall straddled one of the most musically, culturally, and sexually dynamic periods in the city’s history.
For the club’s most passionate devotees—and for the DJs, promoters, artists, and provocateurs who worked there—25 years can feel like a day. So dim the lights and crank the Ministry. Here is the story of Medusa’s from those who knew it best.
Pimps, Punks, Goths, and Geeks
Medusa’s opened in the fall of 1983, a year or so after Shelton, then 26, signed a lease for a four-story brick building in Lake View that had once housed a Swedish social club. Shelton had managed to obtain from the city a license to operate a “public place of assembly.”
Founder and owner
I borrowed 16 grand from my mom to get the club going. That was her savings. I lived there for over a year, scraping the paint off the ceilings and staying up all night fixing shit. I was so broke I sold my car for money to live on. But I always knew I was going to get it open.
If you were walking down the street, you wouldn’t know there was anything going on in there. There was no sign, and it was in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. It was an unusual place to have something like that.
Dave let a few of us live there, and we didn’t have to pay rent or utilities. I lived in a room that was the backstage area. They called it the Pink Pussy Palace. We had the most fun when we weren’t open. We’d go out and eat purple microdots like fiends and do blow all day and all night. And then we’d go back to Medusa’s and just be nuts. On the Fourth of July, we’d be in the building shooting bottle rockets at each other. And then we’d go on the roof and shoot bottle rockets at the entrance to Sheffield’s [a bar across the street]. Sheffield’s must have fucking hated our guts.
Greg “Blue” Pittsley
After a couple of months of sparse crowds, we could expect a rush at 2 in the morning, and then people would stay till 8 or 9. When the last people decided they were done dancing is when we would close.
Owner of Lake View clubs Metro and Smart Bar
None of us had fancy light shows, but Dave would do something just with a red bulb in a corner with a revolving fan or something, and it created atmosphere and ambience and it felt raw. In the ’80s, the people I knew went away from slick. They wanted that great basement party in the biggest possible space.
We had pimps from Cicero. We had the Rush Street crowd. Broadway in Boystown. Punks were coming from [the late-night bar] Exit.
All of a sudden there were more goths who showed up in line, there were more skinheads.
And it was the first time they were all under one roof. It was constant word of mouth. It just kept spreading and spreading.
Valerie “Psycho-Bitch” Scheinpflug, DJ
There’d be someone with a Mohawk standing next to someone in assless leather chaps standing next to somebody with feathered hair wearing a sport shirt.
Bud Sweet, DJ
They came from everywhere. Nobody worried about getting picked on. Nobody was getting judged.
I used to wear skirts, and I’d stand at the top of the stairs on Friday and Saturday nights. And if people laughed about it, they’d be talked to. I had a big Asian bouncer and a big Caucasian bouncer and a big skinhead bouncer all behind me, like, “Yeah, that’s what it is.”
Leroy Fields, VJ
It was a gay, drag, queer, anything-goes atmosphere. It kind of reminded me of a poor man’s Studio 54.
One weekend at Medusa’s would be like a year’s worth of
somewhere else. There’d be people shooting up heroin in the bathroom and people having sex behind the couch. Just craziness.
“DJ’ing Is Like Sex”
DJs Bud Sweet and Mark Stephens initially stuck to a strict repertoire of alternative tracks on Fridays and a mix of funk, electronic, R&B, and industrial on Saturdays, but playlists soon encompassed a broader range of genres, including a healthy dose of obscure cuts as well as new pop hits now and then for the ironic fun of it.
I didn’t want radio music, the really commercial hits. We wanted stuff that we liked. Rodney made a big push for the alternative music. I was an R&B guy.
Employee, daughter of Wax Trax cofounder
Jim Nash Artists on the Wax Trax label were in heavy rotation at the club, and the record store [in Lincoln Park] was a hub for Medusa’s DJs. Most of the music being played at the club was purchased there.
I was playing new wave and a little bit of postpunk. There was a little bit of goth stuff in there, too. And Ministry, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb.
DJ (from the Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1986)
[DJ’ing at Medusa’s is] sort of like sex. There’s an element of tease—and actually giving them satisfaction.
Mark’s mixes were seamless. You could never tell where one song began and one ended. And you’re talking about the early ’80s, when equipment wasn’t all that great. Everything wasn’t perfectly syncopated. To be able to keep the beat was a real art form.
The man could make you dance to artists and songs you would never in a million years dance to otherwise. You’d be two minutes into a song, getting down on the dance floor, and you’d think about it, like, I’m dancing to fuckin’ Janet Jackson? Really?
You got to hear new and different music that was not being played in other clubs. It took balls, and taste.
There was no Spotify, iTunes, or Pandora. Everyone, or most, went out to hear new music at nightclubs, and they were loyal to the DJs. It was very important that you already had the floor on board so that you, in a way, could trick them into staying interested before they realized they were hearing something new.
“Every Day is Halloween”
Never just a dance club, Medusa’s was a three-floor fun house of outrageous visual and performance art. Live concerts, which the club started staging on and off not long after opening, featured some memorable antics, too.
Nightlife was shifting to more of a theatrical feeling, with performance art and live music and DJs and poets—an “every day is Halloween” kind of feel. You dressed up to go out. Dave Shelton and his crew captured that spirit.
Dave was unusual because he kind of gave us carte blanche. We would just think up stuff and decorate the place, and then I would bring in all the performance people I knew.
Artists loved it—the more absurd, the better.
Billy curated this thing called Digest Blood Beat [by artist Brendan deVallance and the art group SXPU]. They had performance pieces happening all around the club. We opened up a bathroom near the video lounge that had never been used. There was a bathtub that was filled with red liquid, and this girl was bound and gagged, rolling around in the water. And there was one little spotlight coming down and an audio loop of this guy going, “You like it like that, don’t you, baby?”
Let me paint a little picture: Take a bit of Santeria ritual weirdness, blend in some Reagan-era paranoia, a mock crucifixion, alien hairstyles, dreary guitar noise, strobe lights, and veiled, half-naked girls in body paint. It was shocking, transfixing, and utterly out of this world. Dave loved it. All of the staff did, too.
There was an art group called Family Plan. On the main stage above the dance floor, they did what they called a Merry-Go-Round of Horror. They had these spikes with mannequin parts hanging off them, and they hung real meat they got from the butcher’s. It was really well done. Very disturbing.
[Shock-rocker GG Allin, who performed at Medusa’s in May 1989] would throw his poop onstage and cut himself. I stood in the doorway while he was playing, and my friends were like, “Come on, let’s go in!” And I’m like, “Nope.”
[After his show] Allin came into the office. He had no clothes on and blood and shit on himself, and he sat down in a chair and we paid him. No big deal. And then [Pittsley] wrapped up the chair in a big garbage bag and said to me, “Here, this is your chair from now on.”
Sometimes I would run out of artists, so I just looked in the phone book and started getting people like animal handlers and strippers. One time this performer came, and she was almost nude, with little pasties, and then a sheer long cape and high heels and this big wig. She got onstage and she had worked out a thing with the projectionist. They had a spotlight, and at a certain point she stood on her head, legs apart, screwed a light bulb into her pussy, and the light bulb lit up.
In one of a number of my special little projects, I found as many occurrences as I could in a whole raft of films of the phrase “Fuck you!” and variations thereof and edited as many as I could together in rapid-fire succession for a three- or four-minute sequence. People would request it every time I worked.
Joe [Michelli] did a video to the Stooges song “I Wanna Be Your Dog” that included footage of Divine eating dog shit in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos. It was rather radical, not to be shown too often. He found images of dogs humping people’s legs and even some brief canine sex.
I was very much under the influence of the Dadaists. Dave would come in, look at all the faces absolutely glued to the screens, throw me a smile, shake his head, and walk out.
The Energy Was Through the Roof
In 1985, Medusa’s started throwing teen dance parties, hiring a septuagenarian bouncer named Rose to work the door and attracting a crowd as eclectic as the older after-hours clientele. Many teen night regulars remember the parties as transformational.
Teen dance promoter
I had done one teen night at Cabaret Metro. It was crazy. There were lines around the block to get in and probably 1,500 kids there. So I approached Dave and said, “I think I can pack Medusa’s for three or four hours before you even open for the late-night crowd.” He let me put ads in all the high school newspapers.
A lot of Medusa’s culture came from kids who were fish out of water, and they found other people like them. They were misfits, basically.
If you were at all “different” back then, you found Medusa’s. It was a time before alternative dress and interests were considered normal, and it could be very rough to be around the mainstream kids in high school. I found validation of my interests there. Everything was dark—the rooms, the clothes, the people. It seemed like a so much more accurate reflection of the world at that time and of the city and of my own life.
Some of the kids were more lost than others. A lot of them were thinking about running away from home or dropping out of school. They would say, “Can I stay here?” And I’d say, “I think you should go home and talk to your mom.”
MTV was very influential at the time, and it was more of a goth-industrial look the kids had. It was very androgynous. It allowed for a lot of sexual ambiguity and freedom. And the energy was through the roof. They had these four scaffolds in the club, and the kids would get up on them and just bang on the scaffolding.
You would see people dry-humping against the wall. Or you’d walk up to the second floor and people were sitting down on the stools, had their coats wrapped over each other, and were pleasuring each other.
[Kids] always found creative ways to bring in alcohol. It was very popular to put vodka into a contact lens solution bottle or a pump hair spray bottle.
They’d go to 7-Eleven, buy a Big Gulp, then bribe somebody on the street to buy liquor for them. They’d pour a pint of vodka into the Big Gulp and drink the whole thing. By the time they got to the top of the stairs, they were loaded. I’d say, “Better come with me,” and then they would sit down in the office and start throwing up. We always had a supply of bar rags and garbage cans.
John Curley, DJ
Dave was always very good with the kids. He was very one on one with people. If something came up, he was kind of motherly. He wasn’t just the Wizard of Oz, hiding in his booth.
One time the back end of an air duct came down and hit these three kids who were dancing. They were brought to the office, and one kid was clearly in shock, because he was turning white and he was clammy and shaky. I called 911, and they got him to the hospital.
The kids it landed on were from a religious college that didn’t allow dancing.
I started making phone calls to their parents. The [injured] kid’s father listened to the whole story and said, “I want to thank you for being so professional. And you don’t have to worry about anything from us, because we are not lawsuit people.” Then he said, “My son has got some real answering to do.”
“Punkin’ Donuts” and Ohter Nuisances
Almost from the start, Medusa’s had outspoken critics. They included neighborhood residents and business owners, as well as the newly elected 44th Ward alderman, Bernie Hansen. Most complaints cited noisy patrons loitering around nearby establishments, among them the Dunkin’ Donuts at Clark and Belmont, dubbed “Punkin’ Donuts” by locals. In 1985, Hansen accompanied the fire marshal and police on a raid, ostensibly to investigate overcrowding, that forced the nightspot to close temporarily. Two years later, after Medusa’s was named one of the country’s top 10 dance clubs by USA Today, a city ordinance took effect requiring “juice bars” to close at 2 a.m. on Fridays and 3 a.m. on Saturdays. Shelton responded by focusing even more on teenage customers, a circumstance that suited him just fine: “We went home earlier, and I made more money.”
Former 44th Ward alderman
I was not a big fan of Mr. Shelton and Medusa’s at all. I had instances of running into people, young kids, who were coming out of Medusa’s, and I saw the reaction to them and the people that were hanging around peddling drugs and all that stuff. I didn’t want it in the ward.
I would be nervous making sure we were doing things right. Dispersing crowds, picking up trash, and making sure we were doing whatever they asked us to do. This was a relatively new license we had, and they didn’t really know what to put it under. I basically asked for a nightclub license without liquor.
The first few months had actually been very peaceful. Dave complied readily with Bernie’s requests, and he and Bernie seemed happy. As long as we kept ourselves in line, we never thought we would have any problems. But kids would park three or four blocks away, and they would make noise on the way to their cars, and people started bitching about it to the alderman. So Bernie went to Dave and said, “Look, I’m getting complaints from the neighbors. All of these people own property here, and we have to achieve peace.” And, of course, we were younger then, and Dave’s attitude was like, “Screw that!”
Medusa’s was a culture that could be shocking to people who were really square, who weren’t exposed to gays and punks and goths—people who dressed theatrically. They looked like scary freaks, and nobody likes things that scare them.
A Chicago police officer
(From the Chicago Tribune, October 19, 1986)
It’s the same old story. Ninety percent of ’em are spoiled little rich kids from the suburbs—all the money in the world, and nothing to do with it. So they flock to the city with their orange hair and their war-painted faces.
Then president of the Lake View Citizens’ Council (from the Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1985)
If they’re on the street in leather and a mohawk, they’re going to Medusa’s. These kids line up on the street. They take over the whole block, smoking dope, throwing bottles, drinking and urinating on the street and making a lot of noise when people are trying to sleep.
We thought it was a bit hypocritical for a neighborhood that regularly had thousands of obnoxious, rowdy Cubs fans wandering around long after the games finished, exiting the local sports bars wasted and urinating on properties willy-nilly. But there was no outcry for legislating against that. The double standard was very much in play.
We were no different than Metro or any other place where young kids were going for entertainment. But [Hansen] was just against us. He had a personal grudge against Dave.
Bernie used to incite the residents. Everything that was happening in the neighborhood, he blamed on Medusa’s—even though it wasn’t necessarily true.
We all thought it was a bit of overkill for a juice bar full of goofy kids that looked vaguely scary and dangerous to locals. Many of us, including myself, felt the alderman was grandstanding in a pathetic attempt to further his own career.
He was the biggest asshole ever. He was going to do everything he could possibly do to get us out of there.
They’d come in and tell us to shut the music off, and the fire marshal would look for violations and shut the club down for the night. There were times when they couldn’t find anything, so we’d turn the music back on and keep going.
Shelton was a very slick operator. He always managed to get out of whatever bind he was in. I don’t know who he had going for him, but it sure wasn’t me.
We took shots from Bernie, we took shots from the city, and I’m thinking, When’s the knockout punch coming?
The Beginning of the End
Despite the legal challenges and raids, the popularity of Medusa’s only grew, boosted in August 1990 when the MTV alternative-music program 120 Minutes shot a segment at the club. What would shut Medusa’s down two years later wasn’t so much a knockout punch as a squeeze play.
Once we survived City Hall’s attempt to put us out of business by restricting our hours, it was evident that business was booming, and we settled into a truce of sorts. The neighbors were happy because their streets were quiet by 3:30 a.m., which was workable for them. We took a much
less adversarial stance toward them and perhaps even cultivated their goodwill to some degree. Bernie cooled his jets, too. I don’t remember his office giving us too much grief the last few years. I know he was very pleased once he knew the end date for the lease was in sight.
I had no intentions of closing. I had discussions on extending the lease or buying from the developer, but it was made clear to him that he would have difficulty getting future developments through if that happened.
“Best Job I’ve Ever Had”
Faced with his landlord’s refusal to sell the building or even renew the lease, Shelton decided to close the club. On June 19 and 20, 1992, Medusa’s hosted its final public dance parties and, after private bashes for friends and staff, shut its doors for good a week or so later. In November 1992, Shelton opened a club of the same name in the former Congress Theater building on Milwaukee Avenue, but it closed less than two years later. In 1997, he launched a Medusa’s in Elgin that’s still around today, though the suburban club’s cachet has never approached that of the original.
I still credit it as one of the best jobs I ever had. Dave really allowed people to be themselves and to be creative.
Curley I cannot stress enough the impact that Dave and Medusa’s had on nightlife in general. It was the first place ever to do a lot of the stuff it was doing, and it had a profound impact well after it closed. I have been working for nightclubs ever since then, and you can still feel the reverberations.
Dave never thought of himself as a businessman. He never thought of himself as someone who could come up with a plan, sustain it, and then grow it. Medusa’s became a business after the fact. It happened without us even knowing it.