In summer 1979, Suzanne Shelton hatched a dream to open a punk dance club. She had two priorities: it had to play lots of new wave, and it needed clean bathrooms.
Shelton had been DJing at a failing Lincoln Park disco called Hoots, but she spent all her free nights at O’Banion’s, a run-down gay bar in River North that DJ Nancy Rapchak had turned punk the previous summer. Shelton didn’t care much for disco, and it didn’t help that she had to spin its commercialized hits over and over for work. But the music that Rapchak and her fellow DJs played at O’Banion’s was another matter. “To this day there are some songs, I can close my eyes and I’m on the O’Banion’s dance floor,” she says.
As much as Shelton loved those songs—the Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” Ultravox’s “Someone Else’s Clothes,” Roxy Music’s “Dance Away”—the state of O’Banion’s itself put her off. “The place was such a dive,” she says. “The ladies’ room was out of order for six months, and they were not interested at all in fixing that. The men’s room—we all probably needed typhoid shots from going in there.” She had a hunch she could launch her own club devoted to punk rock’s arty sibling, and make it a place where she wouldn’t have to hold her pee to hang out. She even had a venue chosen—in fact she already worked there. In July 1979, she pitched the owners of Hoots, Larry Acciari and Eric Larson, on her new-wave concept. They gave her three weeks to prove it could work. She did it in one night.
Shelton kicked off her experiment on July 25, the same night as a Blondie concert at Park West. Her sisters, Mary and Julie, and Julie’s boyfriend Bob Felsenthal handed out flyers outside Park West for a new-wave party at Hoots—it was about half a mile north, down an alley at 2350 N. Clark. After the show, hundreds of Blondie fans walked over. “It was so packed that tables got ripped out of the floor,” Shelton says. “They weren’t staffed for it. None of us knew what to expect. I was in the DJ booth freaking out—I had, like, 30 records.”
Acciari and Larson were impressed enough to give Shelton carte blanche to transform Hoots into a new-wave club. The place needed a new name, and Shelton and her friends drew up a list of possibilities. “We wanted it to be new and different, but ‘new’ is kind of a dumb name,” she says. By the end of the summer, they’d settled on the Latin for “new”: Neo.
Shelton’s vision for Neo lasted only a few years. She left in 1982, after Cal Fortis, future cofounder of Big Time Productions, bought the club from Acciari and Larson. (Fortis didn’t respond to my messages, so I’m not sure if he had any partners in the purchase.) But Neo kept its doors open for decades after new wave’s days as a hot trend ended. It endured for 36 years, finally closing in July 2015. It outlasted almost every alternative club of its era, in part because future DJs were able to expand on Shelton’s work.
In the 1990s, Neo earned a reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool goth cave, but by that point the club had already hosted DJs whose expansive tastes included any style of music that could be called “alternative” (which, while never an especially precise category, did at least indicate a degree of subcultural affiliation in the 90s). Depending on the night, you could hear industrial, house, hip-hop, or grunge; Scary Lady Sarah, the DJ and Chicago goth eminence who cofounded the long-running series Nocturna at Neo in 1988, recalls DJs spinning “Smells Like Teen Spirit” twice in a single set at the song’s peak.
Sarah was a Neo regular before she began working there, as were many of the DJs I spoke to for this piece. Most look back on their time at Neo with a sense of belonging that verges on ownership, and that sensibility extended to many of the club’s patrons. “One of the defining characteristics about Neo that I love the most: the people that came there were regulars,” says Jeff Pazen, who began DJing at Neo in the 1980s. “Like, Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I’m willing to bet that 60 percent of the people that were there were there every single one of those nights. That was their home. That was their living room. They get together with friends, they’d all come in.”
Thirty-six years was long enough that some of the earliest Neo diehards could introduce their children to the club. “It probably happened a dozen times—twentysomethings coming up with their sixtysomething parents,” says Neo bouncer Brian James Dickie, who worked at the club from 2002 till its closure. “It’s physically the same place, but it means so many different things to both of those people. It’s really cool, seeing that one place can be a thousand different things.” Dickie saw at least one teenager’s birthday party at Neo, along with weddings and funerals. The club was usually 21 and up, but it could open its doors to everyone when rented during the day.
On June 27, 2012, Neo hosted a public memorial service for club regular Jamie Duffy, who’d overdosed on sleeping pills. He’d been an industrial-scene linchpin, serving as a recording engineer for several bands and playing guitar in Acumen Nation. The band’s front man, Jason Novak, helped organize a memorial concert called Cold Waves that September at Bottom Lounge; members of beloved Wax Trax! band Revolting Cocks reunited to headline.
The event has since grown into an annual festival of industrial and darkwave music; this past September, Cold Waves lasted three days at Metro and Smart Bar (plus a kickoff party on a fourth day) and included Belgian EBM pioneers Front 242, emerging Chicago acts Fee Lion and Pixel Grip, and early Neo DJ Bud Sweet. In 2017, a local nonprofit called Darkest Before Dawn was founded in Duffy’s memory, and since then Cold Waves has donated part of its proceeds to support DB4D’s mission of providing mental-health resources for nightlife-industry professionals.
The 2020 incarnation of Cold Waves was virtual, and its online programming included a stream of the new documentary 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story, which recounts the club’s final week while excavating its history. Director Eric Richter had been pitching the documentary to distributors with no luck, and Cold Waves offered the public its first chance to see the completed version of 2350 Last Call.
Richter used the money Cold Waves paid him to manufacture DVDs of the film. “My goal was to make it as cheap as possible, so as many people can see it as possible, and to have it be something that’s cool and not just on YouTube,” he says. “They asked me to be a part of their festival at a time that I was looking to make these DVDs, and it really helped put me over the edge to allow me to sell the movie for $5.”
Richter’s briskly paced 46-minute documentary is a great portrait of Neo, full of character, but of course no one film could capture everything. “I think there’s another, like, 30 different Neo stories out there that hopefully will get made or read,” he says.
DJ Scary Lady Sarah spins current and classic goth, industrial, postpunk, darkwave, and more. Sat 12/11, 10 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, $15, $12 in advance, 18+
This story won’t count every ring in Neo’s trunk either, but I still think it’s worth telling now—not least because I see traces of the club’s legacy wherever I look. (I’m not even counting the Neo nights that took over Thursdays at Debonair Social Club after Neo closed.) DJ Scary Lady Sarah has kept Nocturna going, for example, and on Saturday, December 11, Metro will host the series’s last night of the year. The following Thursday, December 16, when House of Vans shows the 2018 documentary Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, Neo regular Franke Nardiello (aka My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult cofounder Groovie Mann) will be one of the special guests providing commentary and participating in a Q&A afterward. Al Jourgensen of Ministry, who appears in the film, won’t be present, but he recruited one of the band’s early members over drinks at Neo. Thursday’s screening celebrates the streaming premiere of Accidents and Outtakes, a brand-new collection of footage not used in the original documentary.
Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records
House of Vans screens Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records with live commentary from director Julia Nash, label staffer Andy Wombwell, and label artists Groovie Mann and Chris Connelly, followed by an audience Q&A. Thu 12/16, 6 PM, House of Vans, 113 N. Elizabeth, free, reservations full, 18+
As influential as Neo was, the most famous mark it’s supposedly left on pop culture is actually just an urban legend. The fourth Matrix film comes out this month, and Keanu Reeves will reprise his role as Neo—a character that many people over the years have claimed (or merely assumed) was named after the club. For a long time I believed it myself, partly because the Wachowski sisters are Chicago natives.
There’s no deliberate connection between the two Neos, but the attraction of the idea is easy to see. The Matrix films capture the seductive and sinister allure of industrial music, and Neo first meets Trinity in a dark club while a dance remix of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” throbs in the background. The collective hallucination of a deeper bond between the character and the club became part of Neo’s evolving story.
Hoots opened in 1975 as a disco attached to a continental restaurant called Squash Blossom. In 1979, Acciari and Larson, who also owned the restaurant, turned it into a wine bar called Gitanes. Hoots was suffering, though, in part because Chicago had raised the drinking age from 19 to 21 in March 1979—presumably the disco’s clientele included a lot of people under 21. “The whole crowd at Hoots was just gone, overnight,” says Shelton, who turned 21 that month.
At the time, Shelton was a cocktail waitress at a Henrici’s restaurant, and a coworker told her Hoots was looking for DJs. Shelton already knew the ropes; in her teens she’d had a summer gig DJing at a Downers Grove disco. “I liked the technical aspects of it,” she says. “I liked working with the dance floor, even though I didn’t really like the music.” She was also eager to get out of cocktail waitressing, so she gave Acciari and Larson a call.
“They were getting a little desperate,” Shelton says. All the same, they asked her to audition. She DJed without pay for three nights, then pushed them to hire her. A few months later, she brought them her idea for a new-wave club.
Shelton’s sister Julie remembers passing out flyers at Park West before that fateful Blondie concert. “There was a long line of people waiting to get in,” she says. “We just went up to everybody and said, ‘You know, there’s this new new-wave punk club opening—it’s right down the street, come after the show.’”
Joe Shanahan went to see Blondie with his roommate, and after the show they walked to the new club. “We wanted to be part of that—we wanted to see what it was all about,” he says. “I could tell it was successful because it was very busy.”
Acciari and Larson pulled busboys from the restaurant to work the bar at what would soon become Neo, attempting to manage a crowd larger than they’d ever seen in the space. “At the end of the night, I just kept apologizing to them for how trashed the place was,” Shelton says. “They were like, ‘No, it was more money than we’ve made, like, ever.’”
Hoots officially went new wave, and Julie Shelton and Bob Felsenthal set about redecorating. They put up leopard-print flocked wallpaper on the wall across from the bar, replaced the purple shag carpet on the other walls with less gaudy gray carpet, and hung a big plush toy of a shark above the dance floor. By day, Felsenthal worked in marketing for the recently established Crain’s Chicago Business, and he pulled in a few of his colleagues to help create visual branding for the new club. To design a logo, he recruited a graphic designer named Ralph Burch.
“We had walked in with an all-caps, elegant Neo logo that we had been using, but it wasn’t quite right,” Felsenthal says. “He wanted to give it a bit of a punky edge. So he just wrote the N E O in big letters on an absorbent piece of paper, then photographed it and blew it up. And we’re like, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ The way the ink absorbed into this paper gave it those rough edges around.” Julie Shelton took the new logo to a neon-sign company, which made the pink “Neo” sign that hung above the mouth of the alley at 2350 N. Clark till the club’s final night.
Julie Shelton and Felsenthal also handled promotion for Neo, which included making flyers, print advertisements, and radio ads for Bobby Skafish’s XRT new-wave show, Big Beat. Chicago promoters Jam Productions, who booked at Park West, began advertising for Neo at Park West and hooking Neo up with concert tickets to give away. The club ran ads in arty Chicago new-wave zine Praxis and above all in the Reader.
Felsenthal remembers one early Neo Reader ad that used a photo he took of Suzanne and Julie Shelton, inspired by the chic appeal of fashion designer Betsey Johnson. “It was just their legs—I think one was in pleather, and the other was in stockings coming out of a cool skirt,” he says. “That photograph represented the new look, but also that Neo was a place that women felt comfortable, could be cool, and dance. But it wasn’t the disco thing—it was a whole different thing.”
Suzanne Shelton developed that whole different thing from Neo’s DJ booth. She spun five nights a week, which meant she was constantly seeking out new records. Acciari and Larson gave her an extra $30 per week to buy new music, and fortunately a great shop had opened in late 1978 around half a mile west of Neo: Wax Trax! Records, run by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. The store had the subversive sounds Shelton sought, and she developed a camaraderie with the owners and employees.
“It was a very sort of give-and-take relationship,” Shelton says. “I’d go in and talk to Jim Nash and say, ‘What’s new that you think I might be interested in?’ Then we’d look at it, he’d talk about it. Sometimes he’d play a couple things for me. Sometimes I’d tell him about stuff that I had heard about.”
Neo’s reputation quickly reached beyond Chicago. Within the club’s first few months in business, Shelton got a call from Danny Heaps, who DJed at the Mudd Club, a New York venue inspired by Chicago’s very first punk hangout, a former gay bar operating under the name La Mere Vipere. Heaps and promoter Mark Josephson were forming a record pool called Rockpool for like-minded DJs (they would soon help found the New Music Seminar), and he invited Shelton to join. “The first year they sent everybody lists of what all the other DJs were playing,” she says. “So we’d sort of feed off of each other and what each other was finding.”
In the three years Shelton DJed at Neo, she became a crucial interlocutor connecting the city to the wider punk scene. She became a reporting DJ for Billboard—that is, the magazine printed her top cuts every week—and other Chicago DJs would follow her lead. Managers of new-wave and punk acts (including Duran Duran and the Undertones) befriended her, which meant she could get advance copies of singles to spin at Neo.
Of course, before Neo developed these connections to the national punk scene, it swiftly became a crucial part of the scene in Chicago—that community was still quite small, and it was chronically short on options for late-night entertainment. “What was cool was that [Neo] was open late—it had a 4 AM license,” Shanahan says. At the time he worked in the service industry, and Neo’s hours fit his unconventional schedule. “Sometimes I wouldn’t get off work until midnight, one o’clock,” he says. “I’d go to Neo and kind of close the place.”
In 1980, former La Mere Vipere co-owner Noah “Noe” Boudreau started working at Neo as a manager and DJ. “He DJed Thursday nights, and the La Mere crowd really loved that,” Shelton says.
Ken Ellis, a doorman from La Mere and O’Banion’s, also took a shine to Neo. “The music was good; I saw a lot of faces that I knew,” Ellis says. “By April of 1980, I signed up—Noe was running the place, so I asked him if he needed any help. ‘Yeah, sure.’ Signed me up. Not too long after that, he signed up a bunch of other guys that worked at La Mere with us.” Neo sometimes had as many as five people working security on a given night; in 1981 they’d be joined by a bouncer named Kimball Paul, a six-foot-three tai chi teacher with a soft spot for Roxy Music.
“It was fun,” Shanahan says. “It became kind of a clubhouse for us for many years.”
Neo’s reputation also attracted punk celebrities passing through Chicago. In summer 1980, when David Bowie visited to star in a stage production of The Elephant Man, he spent some of his free nights at Neo. Shelton recalls that he came to Boudreau’s Brian Eno night, which bore the tongue-twisting name “One Eon of Eno by Noe at Neo.” Bowie helped burnish Neo’s cachet—one night Iggy Pop joined him—but Chicago punks had already adopted the club as their own, and it thrived because it catered to them. “Sometimes I felt it was the only game in town,” Shanahan says.
Chicago’s early punk clubs tended to be ephemeral. La Mere Vipere was open only 11 months before it mysteriously burned in April 1978. Punk club Oz, which emerged from a Rogers Park gay bar called the Greenleaf shortly after the La Mere fire, moved twice before closing for good in the middle of 1981. O’Banion’s lasted from summer 1978 till early 1982. Exit would break that streak: the Old Town punk bar opened at 1653 N. Wells in 1981, and remained in that location for more than a decade.
Other new-wave clubs launched not long after Neo. Ves Pavlovic owned a bar called Lucky Number at 950 W. Wrightwood in Lincoln Park, and after getting hooked on punk he decided to give it a makeover. He debuted Club 950 on April 30, 1980, with the first performance by Special Affect, a new-wave band featuring two future Wax Trax! stars: Franke Nardiello and Al Jourgensen. “I remember I was lucky enough to get to go see that show,” says Glenn Russell, who would later DJ at Neo. “And I was not old enough to be there.”
Russell was studying acting at DePaul when he started going to new-wave and punk clubs with a fake ID. He first went to Neo in 1979. “I wore my father’s pointed black tuxedo shoes, and I had a polka dot skinny tie on,” he says. “I’m sure I had a vintage jacket that I had gotten at a thrift store, and I probably had glasses and was smoking a cigarette because I wanted to look as old as I could.” Kimball Paul let him in, and Russell parked in a corner, feeling a little intimidated in a room full of strangers and nervous he’d be found out as underage. Soon the music loosened him up, though, and he became entranced by the DJ: Suzanne Shelton.
Russell already had some experience DJing: after his family moved to Massachusetts in the late 70s, he worked a summer job spinning hits from the 50s and 60s at the Buccaneer Lounge in Agawam, Massachusetts. In 1984 he’d earn a spot on the roster at Neo, having built a reputation DJing at a series of clubs that were warming up to new wave—including Octagon, which had opened in July ’83 just north of Neo at 2483 N. Clark. Russell arrived at Neo shortly after Bud Sweet left, more or less replacing him.
When Russell was hired at the club, longtime Neo DJ Jeff Pazen had just started there. Like Russell, Pazen had begun going to the city’s punk and new-wave clubs before he was old enough to do it legally. He’d enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1981, and he spun punk records at college parties here and there. When he got the opportunity to visit the north side, he’d make his way to Club 950. Pazen was drawn in by its video games, but he quickly gravitated toward one of the club’s DJs: Boudreau, who’d moved to 950 after getting fired from Neo in 1982.
Boudreau introduced Pazen to Mark Clifton, a record buyer at Wax Trax! by day who worked as 950’s musical director by night. In 1983, Clifton offered Pazen his first DJ set at the club. “He gave me a spot that coincided with my birthday—at midnight, I was going to turn 20 years old,” Pazen says. “So I’m sneaking in for my first night DJing under the auspices of being legal. I’m 19 fucking years old, playing records in a bar.”
If it seems like DJs bounced from club to club, that’s because they often did. Audiences did too, though unlike DJs they’d routinely visit several in a night. “You never almost never went to one club, you always went to a few—and that was super fun because you’d run into different friends,” Russell says. “Every night, I swear to you, every night was an adventure. And that was what was so much fun. You never knew who you’d run into or what was going to happen.”
Russell quit Neo in 1985 to work at Exit, but Neo hadn’t seen the last of him. One night when he and Pazen were booked at Exit and Neo, respectively, they decided to pull a midset switcheroo without telling anyone. At midnight, both DJs began playing the 12-inch remix of The The’s “Uncertain Smile,” a ten-minute song that gave them just enough time to hop on their motorcycles and speed off to the other club. “He got to Neo as the manager was freaking out, trying to put a record on,” Pazen says. “I got to Exit as the manager was freaking out trying to put a record on. And we finished out each other’s nights. It was a riot. People were going back and forth—‘We can’t believe you did this!’”
As stressful as that stunt surely was for Pazen and Russell’s bosses, at least the motorcycles stayed where they belonged. But on a quiet night in 1985, before Russell left Neo for Exit, he was playing the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Never Understand” when Pazen pulled his motorcycle into the club. “I parked my motorcycle on the dance floor, and while he played ‘Never Understand,’ I just revved my motorcycle over the top of the Reid brothers going to town—and of course I filled the place with carbon dioxide,” Pazen says. “Not the only time my motorcycle was in Neo either.”
In the early 1980s, Joe Shanahan began throwing parties at his apartment near North and Wells in Old Town, and he’d DJ on a couple turntables in his living room. “Some of these parties would go late,” he says. “They’d go to like, eight, nine, ten in the morning, but we were all industry people—didn’t have regular jobs—or we were students.” Shanahan strung together music he’d heard at his favorite clubs, La Mere and the Warehouse. So when he got asked to DJ at Neo in late 1981, Shanahan did what he knew best: his sets included punk, disco, soul, postpunk, and new wave. He packed the dance floor, but management complained about some of his records.
“They were like, ‘Hey, this sounds like disco. This is sounding like what this place used to be. We’re a new-wave club. We don’t play that music,’” Shanahan says. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God. Now I know; I have to open my own club.’” In July 1982, Shanahan threw an opening party for Smart Bar with the godfather of house music, Frankie Knuckles.
After Acciari and Larson sold Neo in 1982, new wave’s grip on the club loosened. When Pazen came aboard in ’84, he had a lot of room to experiment, in part because he was DJing on Mondays—that was the club’s ladies’ night, and it initially only drew a few people looking for free drinks.
“I started doing all sorts of things during that time, but really just pushing on a certain sound—of course, with different genres, and I absolutely had a certain snob aspect,” Pazen says. If you could hear it in the mainstream clubs on Rush Street or if it sounded “too pop,” he wouldn’t touch it. He felt confident enough in his skills that when a friend dared him to spin an hour of hip-hop at Neo, he spun 59 minutes—just to prove he could do it whenever he wanted. “He goes, ‘Another minute and you would’ve made 20 bucks,’” Pazen recalls. “I go, ‘Come back next week, I’ll take your money.’”
Within a few years, Pazen had made Monday nights a hit. “Monday night became a place where Prince came,” he says. “Monday night became a place where they were clearing out a table near the DJ booth for Jimmy Page. It really blew up.”
By the late 1980s, it’d been years since Neo had stuck to one definitive sound. Bill Saveley, who began DJing there in 1988, loved the subversive dance of Depeche Mode and New Order, the dour postpunk of Sisters of Mercy, and the cold synth pop of Soft Cell. “And when the industrial thing hit, and Chicago’s Wax Trax!, we played a lot of Ministry, we played a lot of Revolting Cocks, Front 242, that kind of stuff,” he says.
When Russell auditioned to work at Neo in 1984, he spun a few records of the kind of foreboding postpunk favored by UK label 4AD. “At the time I called it ‘death and horror,’” he says. “Which would later become goth.”
In 1988, Neo owners Cal Fortis and Ken Smith hired local architect and Neo regular Jordan Mozer to overhaul Neo’s interior. (The following year, Fortis and Smith would found Big Time Productions, which opened Crobar in 1992.) As Mozer recalls it, Fortis came up with the idea to model the club’s new look on Lower Wacker Drive.
“The appeal of Lower Wacker Drive is that it’s not Michigan Avenue, it’s not Wacker Drive—it’s Lower Wacker Drive, so you have to discover it, you kind of have to know about it, and there’s something underground,” Mozer says. “That’s the mythos of a club, right? That it’s underground, it’s a secret—it’s on the edge of things, and there’s something gothic-romantic about it.”
Mozer drew inspiration from gothic literature and Blade Runner—humans in the film dismissively call the replicants “skin jobs,” a term Mozer applies positively to his Neo renovation. “We were just reskinning it to give it a quick face-lift and change the mood.” The renovation wrapped up just in time for the November debut of Nocturna, which focused on goth music, death rock, and dark postpunk.
Nocturna cofounder Scary Lady Sarah first visited Neo in 1987, when she was 20 years old, but she’d been curious about the club since 1980, when she learned about it from Felsenthal’s Reader advertisements. She went to Neo with a fake ID because she’d seen a Reader ad for an event called “Night Music” that listed the kind of goth bands she loved. “I didn’t know a single person, and I started talking to one of the DJs,” Sarah says. “We just hit it off, right off the bat. We became instant friends.”
Sarah and that DJ, who went by Brother Tom, loved a lot of the same dark, ethereal music. They decided to collaborate on a series showcasing favorites from the 4AD label and relatively obscure acts such as 17 Pygmies. “Tom came up with the name,” Sarah says. “He said he’d always wanted to do something called ‘Nocturna.’” The series launched on a Tuesday; in its earliest incarnations, Tom and a few other folks would spin records while Sarah tended bar, though soon Sarah was taking turns on the decks herself. “Tom would DJ one night, one week, and I would bartend, and then the next week, we’d switch,” Sarah says.
Because one of them was always playing host rather than tethered to the turntables, Tom and Sarah could get to know their fellow goth fanatics and incubate a community. “A lot of times, we’d have 200 people in the room, which is shocking to me now,” Sarah says. “There was a tight-knit and pretty dedicated local goth scene back in those days.” In the 1990s, Chicago goths had a few places where they could spend their time and money, many of them in Lakeview; they could buy music and attend poetry readings at Armageddon Records (711 W. Belmont) or find new clothes and get pierced at Medusa’s Circle (3268 N. Clark). “Even Pick Me Up Cafe, when they were open 24 hours, I remember reading a review saying, like, ‘Best place in Chicago to see a goth at any hour of the day,’” Sarah says.
The goth scene supported Sarah and followed her activities, in part because she was so dedicated to strengthening that scene. During Nocturna’s nine years at Neo, she also spun at other clubs, threw an annual festival called Saturnalia, and booked touring bands with money she made from a business she ran with her husband at the time, a relaxation and flotation center called SpaceTime Tanks.
“I was doing all this stuff, and putting it all into the goth scene, and not getting a lot back from Neo itself, aside from working there,” Sarah says. “Nocturna was kind of like the hub, but it paid very little.” She had started planning to open her own club—she had a promising lead on a former funeral home on Lincoln Avenue—when Neo fired her in 1997.
Fortunately at that point Sarah had already trademarked the name Nocturna. (Tom, by then living in Portland, Oregon, gave her his blessing.) But Neo’s ownership didn’t want her to use the name. “There was a lawsuit, and I won,” Sarah says. “It was a year that was incredibly, incredibly draining, exhausting, financially challenging, and sad.” She continued to host Nocturna events, and she never set foot inside Neo again.
As a teenager in the 1980s, Lilly Wachowski went clubbing at Medusa’s, a Lakeview juice bar with strong ties to Wax Trax! Records and the house-music scene. In her early 20s she sought out venues and clubs with a more aggressive punk style, including Exit and Dreamerz in Wicker Park. She liked the Jesus Lizard, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine, and her impression of Neo didn’t square with those interests. “I perceived that as being, like, a more affluent crowd, even though that was my perception as somebody that was more into angrier music,” she says. “All of the music that I was into was because I was an angry individual, because I was in this body that I wasn’t happy in.”
Wachowski was a fan of at least one band that had a place at Neo: Ministry (along with several other acts in that style) helped fuel her and her sister, Lana, through their writing sessions. “There’s so much action in those early scripts that we did that [the music] was just, like, propelling us along,” she says. “As a young writer, it’s like you have to overcome all of these insecurities in your writing and let yourself be dragged along in that propulsive state as a way to overcome that pain. Or it helped me, anyway.”
The Matrix, the second film written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, came out in March 1999. (Lilly is not involved in the new The Matrix Resurrections.) Lilly knows that many people imagine The Matrix to have some sort of connection to the nightclub Neo, and she’s willing to indulge them even though she never went there herself. “Art doesn’t form in a vacuum,” she says. “We’re all influenced by everything that comes before us. I can’t sit here and say for sure that the club Neo—‘Oh, definitely not!’ It’s not like we said, ‘Hey, we love that club, let’s name that character this.’ It was the name of a club, and we were writing a lot about underground scenes.”
Wachowski encourages people to interpret her work how they will, with one big exception. “I want to put my foot down in terms of the alt-right and what they’ve done to the idea of red-pilling,” she says. “That gross misinterpretation is something that really goes against the essence of the movie. So I’m happy to put my foot down every once in a while.”
She’s far more generous toward the people who’ve seen their favorite nightclub reflected in The Matrix. “I think human connectivity is where all of our movies have ended up going towards,” she says. “All of our movies are, at their base, about love and human connection. The fact that people who went to this club are saying, ‘They named it because of this,’ I think that’s cool. I like that.”
In the mid-80s, Jeff Moyer went to Neo as often as he could to see his favorite DJs: Jeff Pazen, Bud Sweet, Bobby Shea, and Gil Burns. “They were all mentors to me when I started DJing,” Moyer says. He liked to sit on a ledge that gave him a good view into the DJ booth, and in 1989 he found his way into it: Neo hired him, and he spun at the club for about a year and a half.
He was eventually fired—apparently the most common way for DJs to leave gigs at Neo. Because the club’s cachet had begun to slip, Moyer says, management pushed him to play crowd-pleasing tracks that didn’t fit his style. “You’re playing this Wax Trax!-y industrial stuff, but they still want you to fit in the house music, and it was not really a good mix of genres,” he explains. “I couldn’t put it together very well at that point.”
By 1996, according to a 2009 Tribune piece, Neo was operating only three nights a week, but Moyer still liked to hang out there whenever he had the time. He landed back behind the decks in 2000, and within a few years, the club’s fortunes had rebounded under the leadership of Scott Wilkins, who’d come aboard as manager in the early 2000s.
“I like to think that I was part of the resurgence, but to be honest a bunch of other places were closing,” Moyer says. During that era, he was spinning on Saturdays. “It’s more consolidating the crowd—they didn’t have a lot of places to go anymore. Or maybe they liked what I was doing, and that made them go to Neo more.”
Long-running new-wave party Planet Earth, launched in 1994 by future Late Bar cofounder Dave Roberts, made Neo a hot spot on Thursdays too. “There was a resurgence of people liking the 80s, so that for sure helped,” Moyer says. “It’s not like the place got cleaned up or anything. It was a dive, and it just got worse and worse.”
In 2009, Suzanne Shelton connected with Wilkins and set about organizing a 30th-anniversary party at Neo. She tracked down DJs from the club’s various eras, and when the event arrived, she brought her kids. “My mom likes to refer to Neo as her first child,” says Shelton’s son, Buck Foley. “In a very legendary sense, we always knew about it. It was this cool thing that happened that I always would picture in my head, even as a little kid.”
When Shelton’s children were young, she’d shared with them her love for punk, including “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and other songs that reminded her of O’Banion’s. “I’ll always think of my mom when I hear that song,” Foley says. “Music always got her energized, and that’s a song she would play when she was in a good mood. She’d do this thing where she’d ball up her fists and bounce around.”
Foley played bass in local punk band the Infected, who in 2010 made the first of several appearances at Riot Fest. The festival hired Foley two years later. “I was the first non-intern,” he says. “I was the second employee of the company.” He started out working promotions and became a talent buyer for Riot Fest in 2014. “Probably 2015 is really when I came into my own as a talent buyer,” he says. “I started feeling pretty confident about decisions and how to pursue certain acts.”
In 2015, Foley brought Post Malone to Riot Fest for his first Chicago performance. He also booked the Village People in 2019, pushing even harder against the festival’s public image as a nostalgia party for aging rockers. “Those of us who are driven to counterculture and things that traditionally haven’t been cool at first, we just feel a little bit like outcasts,” he says. “One thing that I did notice pretty quickly was the ability of music to bring people together. And that’s something that I saw in myself directly from my mother.”
Neo began to deteriorate in its final years—by then the major renovation in 1988 was decades in the past, and the owners weren’t putting in more money for improvements. Fortis and Smith had moved their company to Miami, which couldn’t have helped. “Pretty much we’d call someone in for the toilets,” says bouncer Brian James Dickie. “But other than that, we were keeping the place together ourselves.”
“There were always rumors of Neo closing or for sale,” Moyer says. “None of those ever happened until it actually did get closed.” Dickie says he found out Neo would shut down ten days before closing night, which arrived on July 30, 2015. DNAinfo reported that the landlord, John Crombie, had tried to negotiate a new lease with Neo’s owners, but that the talks had fallen apart.
Thousands of people showed up for the club’s final week, with lines stretching out the alley, north on Clark, and westbound around the corner onto Fullerton. Shelton and Moyer DJed closing night, and in the wee hours of July 31, Moyer selected the last song: “Dance Away” by Roxy Music. Beloved bouncer Kimball Paul, nicknamed the “King of Neo,” had died the year before, and he’d loved the band. Then Dickie told Moyer he could play one more cut, and he threw on Fugazi’s “Waiting Room.”
Moyer still considers “Dance Away” the final song played at Neo, though, because that’s the choice he put careful thought into. “I couldn’t listen to that Roxy song for the longest time,” he says. “I’d be in the car and listening to Sirius XM, and every once in a while they’d play the Roxy Music song, and tears would be in my eyes.”
In August, Metro hosted the Neo Reunion 2021. Shelton, Scary Lady Sarah, Moyer, Russell, and Saveley were among the DJs; part of the proceeds went toward Darkest Before Dawn. Because Shelton is in charge of organizing such reunions, they’re mostly pretty stressful for her. “The only part of it, for me, that’s fun at all is my hour that I get to DJ,” she says. “When I look around the room and see how happy it makes people—I mean, I wish I could take you there for a minute, because you just look around the room, and people are so happy to be there with their people, hearing that music.”