DeCanio’s club ends whale of a run
BY TODD SHIELDS
STAFF WRITER
Courtesy of the The River Grove Messenger
(article appeared June 5, 1996)

In the dank reaches of The Cave, John the bartender tells another patron he has no farewell T-shirts or jackets for sale to commemorate the last weekend of the Thirsty Whale.

The man, hair far below his shoulders, is about 35 years old or more, shrugs, says thanks, and exits into bright afternoon sunshine, perhaps reconciled he'll never again see the rock ‘n' roll groups he witnessed in this raucous, hard-nosed club that has hosted the country’s best traveling bar bands since 1981.

Tonight, May 31, is the last Friday night show and Enuff Z' Nuff is the headliner. No kidding.

Two nights later, June 2, is the very last show with Radakka and Stonehenge. Amid the club’s bricked walls that ooze concrete and the stucco ceiling are posted band advertisements, screaming at customers in day-glow green “Goodbye!” “The Whale’s Last Weekend,” “Let’s Party.”

In the Whale’s place, after the June 7 demolition, an Amoco gas station and McDonald’s will be built by November.

Washing a stack of cocktail glasses and ignoring a Jerry Springer show on television, John says, “Seems like everyone has been stopping by for one last look. We had a small party here last night for friends, about 25 regulars and employees. It’s all pretty sad. We’re like a family, you know.”

Except for John, an Old Style deliveryman standing by the bar and a young guy with foppish hair dashing back and forth from the stage to the sound booth, The Thirsty Whale is empty.

Jimmy DeCanio, the Whale’s owner, then turns around a dark corner and walks past empty quart liquor bottles cemented into the walls.

Names, such as Toxic Walsh ‘93, Goldenrod Ronnie, Greenpeace Guy ‘92, The Bong and Big Eclipse, are etched into the bricks.

“Hey, be right with you,” booms DeCanio, whose hearing went bad years ago, most likely during the heavy metal days of the mid-1980s.

Within the last two weeks, a number of newspapers, especially Chicago entertainment publications, have requested interviews with DeCanio, who lives next door to the club on Grand Avenue and River Road.

Up in his second-floor office, surrounded by CD and cassette tapes, old stage lights and dusty, discarded telephones, DeCanio sits behind his desk and talks about 25 years in the rock ‘n' roll business.

An electrician by trade, he says, “I started out running the Rusty Nail (rock) and High Society (disco) on Belmont Avenue in Chicago. Not especially because I liked the music, but I liked this type of business.”

Famous bands

Admitting he prefers light rock of the early 1980s, DeCanio says he'll miss the friends and musicians associated with the club, but it’s time to go.

On his wall hangs a list of once and now famous bands that passed through the Whale: Molly Hatchet, Black Oak Arkansas, Zebra, Foghat, Johnny Winter and Grim Reaper.

DeCanio has no plans for other businesses or careers, yet he’s unfazed by that prospect — he’s leasing the corner property to the two huge conglomerates.

DeCanio’s ease is made more apparent when his wife, Peggy, steps into the office, wishing him well before leaving for Denver. An airline stewardess, she reaches up to kiss her husband.

“You know what?” he beams. “This is my new life — my wife and 4-year-old son. I'm a family man now. And after 25 years of working in a club seven nights a week, I'm going to love it,” he says after she leaves.

In explaining his exit from the nightclub business, DeCanio says breaking even has become difficult in the last five years. In addition to stricter liquor laws that limit drink specials, such as 2-for-1 happy hours, he says people don’t have the spending power now as they once had in the 1980s.

“A working guy’s first priority is to pay the rent and buy food, which chews up his entertainment money. Everything has gone up in price these days, except wages.”

He also blames the use of “riders,” meaning a band’s insistence that club owners throw in contractual benefits in addition to their performance pay.

“I agree on a performance price, then the band wants me to pay for the hotel, meals, beer, cigarettes. It happens constantly now and it’s getting out of hand. I didn’t adopt these bands.”

Thanks patrons

On a farewell note, DeCanio says, “I want to thank all the people who stuck with me. And to the other 10 percent who I made unhappy in this neighborhood with all of their complaining about weekend noise and traffic — get a life. This was a commercial district long before they built homes here.”

On May 31, the Whale’s last Friday night show, Enuff Z' Nuff lead guitarist John Monaco, says despite the group’s national following and seven recordings on the market, he will miss the club.

“This is the closing of a chapter for us. We started out here in 1984 and we still draw well. Even though we signed with a recording label in 1985, we come back here to play,” he said.

“No one needs another McDonald’s and part of the problem today is that towns are trying to close out the live music scenes. Young people need a place to hang out, have fun and listen to music,” he added.

A cocktail waitress at the Thirsty Whale for five years, Sue Milbratz says, “She has seen it all while working other music bars, but this place is the greatest.”

Balancing a trayful of Miller Lite bottles, she yells over Enuff Z' Nuff’s version of the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

“We've got the greatest people working here and the greatest customers. It’s kind of a sad day.”

Seated at the bar, Leslie and Diane have been customers for 12 years.

“I'm bummed. We need more places with bands, not less. Downtown Chicago never has enough parking, so the suburbs are perfect for a place like this,” says Leslie.