I’m a nostalgic person. There’s no hiding this (nor have I ever really tried, as I’m sure my husband, who has had to hear about my nostalgia ad nauseam for the past ten years, can attest to).
I get nostalgic for moments. Sometimes, in my mind, I see moments of my life as if they were a still frame from a movie scene. The people with me, the time of day, what I was wearing, the way the air smelled: all of it gets stuck in that frame in my mind in a place I can pull it from again and again.
I started getting nostalgic recently because a place we have called home on Friday nights for many years closed its doors for good last weekend. And if you had told me, in the first year we started going there, that I would someday feel an emptiness in my heart when it closed… Well, I would have called you a liar.
But here I am, five years later, feeling this unexpected emptiness.
I’ve lost other important places before.
The Upstage was probably the first. Prior to turning 21, I used to go to concerts on the other floor of the building, called Club Laga. Under the age of 21, I danced my ass off at P-Funk, Railroad Earth, and Sound Tribe Sector 9. And then from the moment I turned 21 in 2003 until 2006, I became a regular, hitting the Upstage dance floor every Thursday night for 80s Night. So many good times, bad decisions, and questionable after-midnight shots were enjoyed there. Boys, vodka, the best new wave songs (and sometimes, although rarely, I could talk DJ EZ Lou into playing my theme song, “Little Red Corvette”).
In late summer, 2006, the Upstage announced it would be closing. At the time, it felt a combination of not real (how could this place we’ve called home for so many years go away?) and strangely not-that-important. I was graduating in April 2007, and in June of that year, we were moving west to Los Angeles. It wasn’t like we’d be going dancing on Thursday nights anymore, anyway. Husband and I went one last time and danced our asses off and bid the place farewell. We didn’t even take any photos that final night, as far as I can find in the archives.
The next place I lost would be St. James in the South Side. That spot had been our karaoke home for years. Every Tuesday night (and once, for 12 hours, on a Saturday), our crowd of karaoke regulars gathered to sing until the bar closed down. It was never super crowded, so on a good night you could get in 5 or more songs.
St. James was a dump – too shitty to even be called a dive – but it was *our* dump. We were the Oscar the Grouches, and that was our karaoke trash can. My parents came down for my ‘Dirty 30 Birthday Party’ (where everyone sang songs with dirty lyrics for my 30th). Despite the fact that they were probably scarred for life by the touching rendition of “Darling Nikki” their daughter sang that night (sorry guys! everyone used to love when I sang that one!), the thing my parents still talk about to this day was how filthy the bathrooms were.
But when The James announced it had been sold to new ownership and was closing, it didn’t feel like the End Of Times. It was the End Of An Era, sure. But it was going to end anyway. The kitchen had been shut down for a couple of years because it was broken and no one could afford to fix it. Our karaoke DJ of the past nearly-decade had gotten a grown up job and was going to be retiring from the KJ business anyway. So it was just logical that everything ended all at once, neatly tied up at the end of the year in 2013.
There have only been two places that have closed and immediately left a hole in my heart where they were. The first was Eclipse. A goth wine bar with two monthly DJ nights? What wasn’t to love.
From the first night I walked into Eclipse, it felt like coming home. One of my dearest friends was a resident DJ there, and from the first time I went to one of his DJ nights, I knew this place was a part of me.
When a regular goth night became part of the rotation at Eclipse, things were even better. There wasn’t much of a dance floor, but we made it work. There was never, ever, EVER a place where I felt more at home than I did at Hades Night at Eclipse. William and Christian are both incredible DJs, each with their own styles, but both of whom brought the music to us so beautifully. Familiar faces behind the bar, good wine flowing all night, delicious snacks from the kitchen.
Eclipse was snatched out from under us, and suddenly. We were less than a week away from the next Hades Night when the call came. We knew the bar had been sold, but we were told it would retain its DJ nights until October. But with less than a week’s notice, that all changed. Hades Night was cancelled. The bar was closing. We were without a home.
The loss of Eclipse hit me hard and hit me fast. One moment, I had this safe space where I could be my weird, gothy, wine-nerd self whenever I needed it, and then… nothing.
But I’ve long maintained that if I don’t dance, I will go crazy. For awhile, we had been casually hitting Belvedere’s on Thursdays and Lava Lounge on Fridays. Belvedere’s closed long-term-temporarily in January of 2015, so we’d just stuck to Lava on our non-Hades-Night Fridays. And I liked it, and it was okay, but then, when Eclipse closed…. something shifted.
Our first visit to 80s Night at Lava Lounge was in December 2011. We liked it a lot, although there was a bit more pop music than we liked. It was close to the old days at the Upstage, but not *exactly* there. And the DJ couldn’t beat match to save his life.
So I didn’t fall in love right away. This wasn’t anything like Eclipse. Eclipse was all dark purples and fairy lights and exposed brick. Lava, on the other hand, was cheesy as hell. The chairs were uncomfortable and weird, there was fake lava on the walls, and there were ugly rock formations – at least one of which I maintain, to this day, was shaped like some male anatomy – hanging from the ceilings. The dance floor was so tiny you could barely move without bumping into a wall. When we first started going, the drinks were high-priced and had barely a full shot of liquor in them. And for the longest time, you could smoke on the dance floor, and we would come home smelling even worse than we had during the old, smoky days of the Upstage.
But we kept going.
Some nights, the floor would be packed with bachelorette parties or middle-aged yinzers who wanted to hear Whitney Houston and Bon Jovi songs. Some nights, the place wouldn’t be crowded at all, and you would have actual space to move, and you’d get to hear more new wave and less pop.
From December 2011 until some time in 2014, we were casual regulars. We went dancing at Lava roughly once a month. We mixed it up, primarily with 80s Night at Belvie’s, and sometimes Title Town.
In early 2014, DJ SamAraI took over control of the speakers. I admit, it took us a minute to realize we were getting a better set every Friday night. Gradually though, I realized we were losing more and more of the the 80s bubblegum fluff. We were gaining more of the bands that hit me right in the heart: The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, David Bowie, Peter Murphy, Pet Shop Boys, New Order. The new wave bands and the alternative sound and the stuff that makes you dance with reckless abandon. And Sam had a great handle on song transitions. We lost the choppy beat-match-attempts and gained a more cohesive sound.
So by early 2015, without quite realizing it, we had gone from monthly trips to Lava to weekly. With the loss of Belvedere’s, it was all we had. And at first, it felt like that: the only thing we had, so of course we would go. But every week, that smelly, dirty hovel wore me down a little more. Every week, the Lava Lounge pressed a little harder into me, at first in ways I couldn’t measure unless I sat down and really thought about it.
We got to know Bethany, the awesome gal behind the bar. We got to know the regulars – sometimes only by nicknames we came up with because we didn’t know their real names yet. The bar became non-smoking on weekends. Drinks improved (thanks, Bethany!). I got to a point where I was comfortable showing up in my goth attire without worrying anyone would judge me. We started following Sam’s setlists online. I started tagging songs on Shazam as I was out and about so I would remember to request them on Friday nights.
Lava became a part of my heart, against my better judgment. This place stunk and there was hardly any room on the dance floor, and it was in the fucking SOUTH SIDE of all places. But sure enough, week after week, it wormed its way into my soul.
When we lost Eclipse, something shifted. And this was a shift that I felt. I went from believing that Lava was ‘the only place I had’ instead to realizing that Lava was ‘that place that I actually kind of need.’ I needed somewhere to lose myself, to dance and dance and laugh and dance more. Lava filled that hole. Lava became the security blanket that wrapped around my anxiety and depression and gave me a time and a place to feel comforted. There were weeks where I would stare at the calendar, wishing away the hours until Friday night. There were nights I stayed out way too late because ‘just one more song!’ happened over and over and over. There were mornings I woke up so sore from dancing so hard. But I never regretted one of them.
I was out of town when Sam sent out the word. Lava was closing. We had four weeks left – 2 of which, we were out of the state. It was closing at the end of April and reopening as a different beast where we wouldn’t be dancing on Friday nights.
Our group of regulars – who, by now, we were all friends with on social media – talked about it online. How could this happen? How could we lose our safe place? Where would we go? How could we send it off properly?
Sam reached out to us for requests for the final night. The dance floor, which was hardly ever packed these days, was full every Friday night in April. On the penultimate 80s Night, we actually only made it an hour before the crowd was too much for my anxiety and we had to leave.
And then… the final night.
I was out of town for work, but I drove home that Friday night. I couldn’t miss this.
By the time I made it the hour & a half drive down after my shift, there was a line clear up the block. We stood in line 45 minutes, waiting to get in. It was a bit disappointing – we had been going every week I was in town for so long now, and all these other people had just shown up out of the blue! But we knew once we were in, we were in for the rest of the night.
Finally, around 1130, we reached the door. And we walked in, and suddenly…. we were home.
So were like 400 people we’ve never met before. But it didn’t matter. We were home. We, and our fellow regulars, were home, even with strangers in our house. There was room for all of us. As fellow Lava regular and Lord Of The Dance Floor, HH, said to me earlier that evening, “tonight – we are kings and queens – we rule the world!”
Fortunately, the gorgeous and lovely Tina (previously known to me only as ‘that dancer girl who is my spirit animal’) had gotten in before us, and secured a tiny plot of dancing real estate on the side of the dance floor. I had to dance on a little ramp in the floor, which made me feel very much like I was dancing on Club MTV back in the day.
We met new people, saw old people we haven’t seen in ages, and spent the entire night dancing like there was no tomorrow – because there wasn’t.
As the night went on, we moved to the main dancefloor, becoming part of the mass of dancing humanity. Sam played “When Doves Cry,” and there was something about that moment that made me feel like Lava 2016 had transformed into First Avenue, 1984. That was one of those still-frame movie scenes, and I have pulled it up dozens of times in the week since it happened.
I had wondered all week what the final song would be. When Sam had reached out to some of us regulars for song suggestions, nowhere in the selections I volunteered could I find a ‘final song’ that fit. But not to worry, he had captured it perfectly: Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” into REM’s “It’s the End of the World.” I’m not even an REM fan for the most part, but there it was, the end of the era. A place I’d thought I could shake, a place I thought for years I didn’t need, but a place that had become a part of me.
I wanted to dance: I’m a dancer, I ALWAYS want to dance. But I wanted to take it in. I wanted to pause, watch everyone, capture every single moment and sound and sight that there was. In that moment, as everyone was dancing, that final song playing over the speakers, all I could think of was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
And we did.
My love affair with the Lava Lounge was unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I fought it for years, denied that it had gotten a hold over me, pretended I could walk away from it at any time. And now that it’s gone, I feel that hole in my heart. A hole that, in a way, shocks me with its existence. And a hole that, in another way, I think I always knew would be there someday.
Thank you, Lava Lounge, for the years. For the dances, for the music, for the drinks – both shitty and wonderful. For the new friends, for the laughs, for the memories. For the conversations about bad smells, for reminiscing over setlists, for giving me a bright spot at the end of the week where I could get my mind right.
For the longest time, I thought you were just a place I went to dance. And now, I realize, you were a place that became a part of me. And you’ll always be with me. <3