In The Belly Of The Thirsty Whale
It was more than 20 years ago that I last set foot inside the Thirsty Whale. The band was Holland, on the eve of their Atlantic Records release, Little Monsters. Former B’zz singer Tommy Holland had assembled a new outfit, and I was excited to see what they were like on the crowded stage. Joey Cetner’s bass and Brad Rohrssen’s drums pummeled the low-ceilinged, brick-walled space under Michael Angelo Batio’s flashy guitar riffs, as Tommy’s rough and tumble voice rasped, “Wake up the neighborhood.”
Thirsty Whale weekend begins October 23rd at Shark City in Glendale Heights. For more memories from the bands that played, click here.
That’s what the Thirsty Whale was all about, loud rock music for the party people. Owner Jimmy DeCanio took his experience running the old Rusty Nail and the High Society disco on Belmont in Chicago and put it to good use at the corner of Grand and River Road in River Grove. What used to be the Red Steer, complete with oversized bull head outside, became the Thirsty Whale, home to live rock music from the era of Jerico, Pezband, and Sherwin Spector And Sparkle, to Cheap Trick, Survivor, and Off Broadway, and on to Holland, Paradoxx, Hammeron, Cuttlass, O’Dette, and Diamond Rexx, and then to the harder rock of the ’90s like Zoetrope and Trouble. Following a weekend of Enuff Z’Nuff, the last show at the Whale featured Radakka and Stonehenge on Sunday, June 2nd, 1996.
DeCanio’s gone now, retired to Las Vegas, and so is the Thirsty Whale, replaced by an Amoco BP gas station and McDonald’s restaurant, but the echoes of national bands like Ratt, Lita Ford, Dream Theater, Foghat, King’s X, Savatage, Alice In Chains, Deicide, Nuclear Assault, and so many more still rebound off the new Golden Arches.
The bands had their fans, but the Whale had its fans, too, and thanks to Illinois Entertainer Promotions Director Tony Labarbera, the Thirsty Whale reunion show will be held on October 24th at Shark City in Glendale Heights, preceded by Whalepalooza the night before. “It was the one thing I still wanted to do, and do right,” says Labarbera, talent buyer and entertainment manager during the Whale’s last decade. “At the Thirsty Whale, you joined the club.” Some 40 of the bands that made the Whale infamous will be performing on two stages into the wee hours of the morning, and how could it be otherwise? There’s even the Thirstywhale.com Web site, something that didn’t even exist back in the day, and it has all the details about tickets, bands, and Whalers, as the club’s fans are known.
DeCanio wanted to wish everybody well. “I want the reunion to go dynamite for Tony. Tony worked his tail off for the club and a lot of bands gave Tony a hard time, but Tony tried to work with so many of the locals, to try to help them, that these guys never ever would have been anywhere without Tony.
“You know what?” he continues. “The Whale was a fun place. My wife, and she worked for me for awhile, too, she said, ‘You had long-haired guys, short-haired guys. You had girls that wore spiked hair, and then you had the little preppy girls.’ The Whale was just a combination of everybody that enjoyed music. That’s all it was.”
But the Whale was much more than that, as Shadows Of Knight founder and singer Jimy Sohns points out: “The Whale consistently gave local heavier bands in the Chicago area a chance to play and gain a fanbase more than any other club that there was going.”
In 1987, Labarbera started doing all-ages shows at the Whale featuring bands like Holland, who drew 1,000 for the first one, and they proved to be a boon for the club, and for the bands like 7th Heaven and Smash Alley that got their start there. Labarbera’s experience promoting these kinds of shows at his little local church circuit, Holy Cross High School, and later at Snob’s on Grand Avenue, paid off for the Whale by creating future club regulars.
Not only did the Thirsty Whale provide local acts with a place to play, it gave them inspiration when they came and sat in the audience. As Shady Daze/Hounds guitarist Glen Rupp puts it, “Anything could happen. I remember at the Whale, Jonathan Cain would come and sit in. Jonathan Cain later joined Journey and co-wrote a lot of big hits. And Kevin Cronin came and sat in, and he used to play acoustic guitar by himself before he was in REO Speedwagon. I thought that was inspirational for guys that are young musicians, thinking that you play a place like the Whale, which is just a neighborhood spot, but a lot of the big stars would come and sit in.”
Survivor/Ides Of March founder Jim Peterik also has a place in his heart for the Whale: “It just seemed like our homebase, ground zero for Chicago bands and for the Jim Peterik Band. That’s when I started playing the Whale, back in about ’75, ’76. Always had a good crowd. Management was always very accommodating. Sound system was good. And then, gradually, as I got together Survivor, that was kind of our homebase, too, from ’78 to about ’81. We built and built and built, just like the club kept building the stage out, Survivor kept building their fanbase out of the Thirsty Whale.”
Things changed over the years, as Tommy Curran gaveway to DeCanio in 1981 after the legal drinking age was raised from 19 to 21, and the music changed, from glitter rock to more melodic fare, and then onto the heavy metal of its final decade. Billy Corgan, Sr., father of the Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman, played the Whale during the glitter years. “Those are pretty hazy days. We always packed the place, I mean, all the way down the block around the corner kind of thing. We had a good local following, mostly with Crystal.”
Corgan found a way to make the Whale a regular gig: “Because bands were all wanting so much money, and the more popular we got the more we would ask for, and we said, ‘Give us a week a month and we’ll keep this price through this block period.’ Wednesday through Saturday, five sets during the week, six on Saturday. We’d start at 9:30.”
“Jade 50’s in those days was the only band allowed to take the money at the door. We charged five bucks a head, which was two dollars more than anybody else charged to get in. This was the late ’70s early ’80s,” says Jade’s Joe Cantafio, now working for military veterans with his band the 101st Rock Division. “We played four New Year’s Eves in a row at the Thirsty Whale. That’s how you knew you were their top draw.”
Whisper/Trillion drummer Bill Wilkins concurs with most of the regulars: “The Thirsty Whale, that was a fixture, and I remember Mickey Scully having his trailer out on the side. He would always have that mobile home for the bands to party in right next to the clubs, so I always enjoyed that, because you had all the women and all the other bandmates, and everybody would just hang out there, and it was like our own little living room next to the living room. It was fun.”
Tommy Holland, whose House Of Holland headlines the reunion, was even more of a regular. “The Whale, that was my living room. That was my home, apart from just playing there so often. All the people, from Jimmy DeCanio and Billy Caputo, all the guys there. It was a family thing. It was the place you had to be,” he remembers.
Dirty Dan Buck, of the Boyzz From Illinoizz, gives it a more detailed perspective. “That room carried a certain attitude, different from the other rooms, different from the Haymakers, the Monopoly’s, the B. Ginnings. Those kind of had a different thing going on, a level of sophistication or whatever. I don’t know what it would be called. But when it came to the Thirsty Whale, man, everything was just down and dirty. I mean, it was just great. And everything about it exuded that, you know? The attitude of the people when you walked in, just the way you were taken care of up in the dressing room, it was just different. And the audience carried that in, too, with them.”
No matter whom we called, the memories flowed. Mark O’Dette, of Vengeance and O’Dette, says, “The Whale was the club to play in Chicago”; Paradoxx guitarist Jon Dobbs thinks of it as a father, “The Whale played a huge part of my early years, not only as a struggling musician, but as a person”; and Prism/Europe vocalist Dave Matthews remembers it like the center of the universe: “All paths crossed at the Thirsty Whale.”
Illinois Entertainer founder Ken Voss has a fond place in his heart for the Whale. “The thing I remember most about the Thirsty Whale was how long the bands had to play.” Former Ad Director Ron Ramelli adds, “I always knew that I’d run into some of the old gang at the Whale.” Thirsty Whale house soundman Jim Tsicouris sums it all up: “It was the wildest ride of my life.”
— Guy C. Arnston
For more memories from the bands that played, click here.