Nervous Breakdown

One of the more endearing quirks of the Nervous Center is that the performances, which take place in the basement of the boho Lincoln Square coffeehouse, never completely manage to drown out the footsteps of the patrons upstairs. But lately owners Richard and Ken Syska, brothers who’ve scraped by for more than five years charging a buck for java and nothing for some of the most cutting-edge music in the city, have been distracted by a rumbling of another kind–the sound of money rolling into the neighborhood. While Lincoln Square was hardly skid row when they first signed their lease, in early 1995, property values have risen steadily, and along with them property taxes. A provision in the lease–a three-year deal with an option to renew, which they exercised in 1998–stipulated that they would be responsible for 15 percent of any property tax hikes by the city. Ken says they totally forgot about the clause until this past spring–when they were given a bill for 15 percent of five years’ worth of tax increases and 30 days to pay it.

The Syskas say that when they sat down with the bill, they determined that the figure they were looking at was for the entire three-story building, which stretches from 4600 to 4612 N. Lincoln. Their understanding had been that they were to pay in proportion to the amount of space they rented, so they calculated that amount and paid it. But Grissette Almann of Group Fox, which manages the building for owner William O’Kane, says they understood wrong, and that no new lease can be negotiated until the bill is paid in full. Ken says that though the venue has received only a handful of noise complaints over the years, the management has recently been pressing that issue as well. Almann confirmed this, saying other tenants in the building have begun reporting noise problems in the past five months.

When the brothers first opened the Nervous Center, at the 4612 address, they talked O’Kane down from his asking price of $2,400 a month to just $950. Today the strip they’re on is occupied by a Starbucks, the new Old Town School of Folk Music, and several upscale restaurants, and they still pay only $1,200, which includes heat. Almann says the landlord has no ulterior motives: he just wants the Syskas to pay the bill. Ken says he wouldn’t blame O’Kane if he did want to flush them out and find a higher-paying tenant. But the point is moot: the Syskas have decided to cut their losses and will close the Nervous Center when the lease comes up. They have no concrete plans to reopen it anywhere else.

Considering the lack of experience the brothers had going into the venture, it’s something of a miracle that they made it this long. They’d originally hoped to run a bar with live music, but after a year of searching they realized they could never afford a space that already had a liquor license. Neither had previously considered opening a cafe, but as Richard jokes, “We loved coffee….Before opening this place we were actually roasting our own beans in a popcorn popper at home.” They continue this practice, albeit with an antique roaster, at the Nervous Center. “We probably would have gone out of business if we didn’t roast them ourselves.”

They didn’t begin programming entertainment until a year after they opened, and then they started slowly, inviting patrons to bring in home recordings on Tuesday evenings. (They later released a compilation CD featuring a cross section of these.) The basement required drastic cleaning before anyone could play there, and at first the brothers, who have an experimental rock band called the Basic Food Group, used it primarily as their practice space. “We filled up two of those huge metal Dumpsters when we cleaned it out,” says Richard. “It hadn’t been cleaned in like about a hundred years,” adds Ken. “I found prohibition liquor bottles down there.” They finally booked their first show in 1997.

In the summer of 1998, hoping to piggyback on bigger gigs by touring free-jazz musicians, Richard approached Ken Vandermark about booking a series. “We wanted to get some attention, and I knew he had lots of connections,” he says. The Lunar Cabaret, where the saxophonist had previously run a weekly series, had recently stopped presenting live music, so he was glad for the opportunity. It was left to the musicians to collect a cover charge, and any donations they could solicit were theirs to keep. Before long the Nervous Center had become a key venue for the city’s experimental music scene, providing valuable stage time for the young free-jazz players who were flocking here as well as an intimate venue in which to witness and interact with European heavies like Mats Gustafsson, Paul Lytton, and Sebi Tramontana and touring American artists like Nmperigin and Jack Wright. It also hosted the first shows in Mike Javor’s “/bin” electronic-music series. Though spaces like 6Odum, Deadtech, Lula Cafe, and Myopic Books host similar shows on occasion, the Nervous Center is by far the most consistent of the bunch.

The Nervous Center will remain open until mid-February. Drummer Tim Daisy, who took over booking Thursday nights when Vandermark stepped down last year, is planning a three-day jazz blowout at the end of January (watch for details), and Richard hopes to organize a similar event for electronic music. And the venue may not yet have made its most significant contribution to the scene: The brothers documented every performance at the space with the vague idea of launching a “Live at the Nervous Center” CD series. Maybe once they’ve got more time on their hands, they’ll make those sounds available to the public–footsteps and all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.