For two generations of Chicago-area rock fans, it's hard not to wax nostalgic when driving past the intersection of Grand Avenue and Des Plaines/River Road.
These days, a gas station and a fast-food joint occupy the plot once claimed by a World War II-era roadhouse. But from the early '80s through the mid-'90s, that lovably grungy dive was known as the Thirsty Whale, and it was the epicenter of the regional hard-rock and heavy-metal scenes, host to thousands of hopeful up-and-comers as well as national acts such as Extreme, Foghat, Survivor, Cheap Trick and Enuff Z'nuff.
"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," owner Jimmy DeCanio told The River Grove Messenger when addressing the club's closing in June 1996 (though his comments ring even more true today).
Tony "Shark" Labarbera, who worked at the club for 12 years, serving as general manager until a few months before its demolition, has another theory about its demise. "Kurt Cobain and his whole little Seattle grunge movement came in and killed everything," he says with a heavy sigh. "That was when MTV made the decision to go to that style of stuff, and they killed 'Headbangers Ball.' The interesting thing is that now it's on VH1 and the heavy-metal and hair bands are all considered classic rock."
Indeed they are, and because of the enduring popularity of these genres--the "Rock Band" video game can take much of the credit for that--as well as the fact that many of the musicians and fans who cut their teeth at the Thirsty Whale have never found another place that quite measured up, they will gather to celebrate the legacy at two shows this weekend, organized as a labor of love by the man most know as Tony Shark.
"I had a core group of bands in mind for it in the beginning, and they were all gung-ho about doing it," Shark says. "But since I started advertising it about four months ago, I've gotten a lot more people who contacted me asking to be a part of it." (There are now more than 40 bands on the bill; Friday will feature longer sets, but on Saturday, each group will get 15 minutes to play two songs.)
"It's interesting because I've had a lot of bands reform just to do this thing that haven't played with each other for 15 or 20 years because they got in a fight over a girl or whatever. Back then, they couldn't afford their $200 guitar. Now, they're coming back, they've had their family, they're getting back into playing again, and they have $5,000 guitar rigs. They don't sound any better, but they sure look a lot better!"
Shark himself is looking like a survivor, which at age 48, he is. After leaving the Thirsty Whale, he went to what he calls "the extreme polar opposite," touring with, managing and booking smooth-jazz bands. Then about two years ago, he was laid flat by a life-threatening disease that resulted in a two-month coma, a seven-month hospital stay, kidney failure, a long stint in a wheelchair and difficult physical rehabilitation.
"I say this and my wife cringes, but if I had died at that point, I would have died content, because I had accomplished everything I really ever wanted to accomplish in this business. The one thing I didn't do, however, was the Thirsty Whale reunion the way it should be done. There were a few attempts to do it before, and people asked me to take part. But for a long time, I was trying not to be 'the Thirsty Whale guy,' so I didn't do it."
Laying in the hospital bed, Shark reconsidered. "Now is the time," he says.
The Thirsty Whale Reunion will take place at the aptly named Shark City Night Club starting at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 23, and featuring Explorer, Theater, Dirty Dan Buck, Whyte Rock, Odette, Veilside, House Holland, Cutlass and 1313. It continues starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, with a packed lineup including 7th Heaven, Haven, Lowdown, Bump and Grind, Veilside, Simple Simon, Tommi Gunn and many (many) more.
Shark is looking forward to hearing all of these groups, but even more, he's eager to reconnect with old friends. And he plans at some point to call all of the couples who married after meeting at the club up on stage--along with their children.
"It was unpretentious, kind of like a younger version of Cheers," Shark says, summing up the Thirsty Whale's appeal. "You could walk in on any given night and know what kind of clientele you'd be hanging out with. The thing I liked about it in retrospect was that it was a nightclub, and when you were there, you were part of the club. Places today aren't clubs; they're bars with a stage in the corner."
The Thirsty Whale Reunion
8 p.m. Oct. 23; 7 p.m. Oct. 24
Shark City Night Club, 2240 Bloomingdale Rd., Glendale Heights
Tickets $15 Friday; $20 Saturday
www.thirstywhale.com; (630) 965-7625