Everybody gets down: On the sustaining appeal of Smart Bar

Everybody gets down: On the sustaining appeal of Smart Bar

(Flickr/Chad Magiera)

I was born five years after Smart Bar. I say this not to elicit shock, but to point out this Chicago establishment’s success. Situated underneath the Metro, Smart Bar opened in 1982 and just recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. But to me, Smart Bar will always be a newly minted 21-year-old, all bright-eyed and energetic. It’ll always be there for a good time – or a weird time. And even if you, too, are no longer as young as you feel, Smart Bar will welcome you with no judgment. Truly great places always do.

This late-night venue, open until 5 a.m. on the weekends, is an institution. It is important for what it has provided in the past – the bands, the DJ sets – but also for what it continues to provide right now. I didn’t think I would ever hear Joy O, one of my favorite young producers, in Chicago. And then he came here, and he played at Smart Bar. Because of course he did.

As a genre, electronic music continues to grow. And while Smart Bar stays focused on its core genres (house, techno, drum & bass), it also acts as an outlet for progressive and experimental sounds, music the venue describes as, “that future-bassy-techy stuff that can’t really be classified.” Smart Bar’s Facebook page proclaims, “Whoever is DJing is pretty important. You should find out who they are if you don’t already know.”

Smart Bar survives and still feels fresh. Or rather, it never seemed “un-fresh” to me. Smart Bar gave – and gives – names for new and old fans of the venue, never seeming contrite, always getting “it” (the sounds, the movements, the genres, the passions) right.

It’s not just that Smart Bar is dark and loud. There are a lot of places that fit that criteria. Sometimes the crowd itself is hit or miss. No, Smart Bar’s appeal lies in what it can provide for each patron: sensory overdrive. It is everything all at once. And it is everything with the knowledge that very few places in the city can provide this time and time again.

I live miles away and yet I’ve spent more time at Smart Bar in recent weeks than I have in bars just down the block from my apartment. I’ve seen the doormen and the bartenders more times than I have the women who are supposed to be my closest friends. A few weeks ago, I went to the bar to hear a set from Montreal-based producer Jacques Greene. I attended the set with some friends, but we lost each other for large swaths of time and more often than not, I was alone in a sea of bodies there to hear and experience something special.

I stood again on the dance floor a week later for another set. It was a Thursday evening and I had work the next day, but that mattered little to me. A night out at Smart Bar is not merely a choice of staying out late. It is a choice to be around like-minded souls eager to lose themselves in the freedom of the dance floor. If a dance club is an escape from the outside world, then Smart Bar is the best, providing sounds that are both unique and homegrown, weird and classic, feral and soothing.

If Chicago is the city that works, then what works here is the filling of the void. We need Smart Bar as much as Smart Bar needs us. Without this relationship, it’s unlikely the venue would survive as it has, and appeal to generations young and old as it has.

In volume one of literary journal Motherwell, artist Karthik Pandian wrote an essay on the appeal – the necessity, even – of the dance floor. He wrote:

Precisely because it is a milieu in which aesthetic, political and sexual relationships are enacted by a mass of subjects and not simply theorized, the club is a microcosm of society. And yet, because these social bodies assemble into a dynamic visual, musical, spatial, kinetic and even poetic montage, the club is a kind of living, total work of art in its own right. Far from eternal, it is a necessarily temporary unity itself composed of countless unpredictable aesthetic and bodily unities and dispersions.

Places like Smart Bar provide a necessary escape from the world. This escape is not a means to ignore the reality of the world, with all of its hardships and frustrations. Rather, it’s an outlet for self-care and emotional preservation. It’s a necessary break, one in which the euphoria of the dance floor and the driving rhythms and deep bass mimic the beating of one’s heart. Smart Bar – and the dance floor by extension – is a place that feels real and necessary. Pandian writes, “it is almost as if, in the production of new times, the nightclub incidentally and fleetingly burns off the old.” It is a temporary place for the individual, a communal space of like-minded souls in need of everything it can provide: heart, hope, and healing.