Uh oh, another Chicago tour -- a short bus, 20 strangers smiling gamely at each other, an edgy guide checking his watch and eager to start on time. Which one is this? A food tour? Architecture? Ghosts, gangsters, the great fire?
Phil Rockrohr, the guide at the front of the bus, plugs his iPod into the stereo system and cranks it. Suddenly Tutu & the Pirates' grinding punk-rock milestone "Wham Bam Son of Sam" is blaring, and we suspect Chess Records is not on the day's itinerary.
"Chicago Rocks: 1980-2002" delivers just what its greatest-hits title states, a whirlwind drive-by of where the city's punk, post-punk, alt-rock and modern rock bands lived, played and drank. Tours of Chicago's blues and jazz history pop up intermittently, but the new mini-voyage -- launching this weekend, with three-hour tours leaving each Saturday from Schubas bar and concert hall -- aims at tourists and residents for whom Naked Raygun, Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair are foundation music, not necessarily Muddy and Buddy.
'CHICAGO ROCKS: 1980-2002 TOUR'
• 3-6 p.m. Saturdays
• Leaves from Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
• $28 (must be 21 or older)
Rockrohr is a musician himself, a Park Forest native who's played in about a dozen local bands, including his own Phil Rockrohr & the Lifters. "I saw that Weird Chicago bus go by one day," he says, "and I thought, 'Why isn't there a music tour?' I know there's that thing Buddy Guy narrates, the one you can download, but there's more to Chicago music than the blues -- enough that people might be interested in seeing where it happened."
The geography of the "Chicago Rocks" tour contributes to the chronology, moving roughly from the early '70s (La Mere Vipere, the city's first punk club, now Dynamic Liquors, 2132 N. Halsted) and '80s (Pravda Records, Chicago Trax, the gnarly alley leading to Club Neo, 2350 N. Clark) on the North Side to the '90s in Wicker Park (Brad Wood lived here! Liz Phair posed here!) and back through the Northwest Side (look quickly, there's the Wilco loft!).
First stop is Milio's Hair Salon, 959 W. Belmont, a second-story, red-brick spot that was formerly a host of rock clubs, including the Quiet Knight (the Velvet Underground played here), Tuts (after it moved from the Metro site) and the famed Avalon, site of early 1980s performances by R.E.M., Echo & the Bunnymen, Run-DMC, Bob Marley, Tom Waits, Prince and the first gig by the Smashing Pumpkins.
"A friend of mine played here that night and saw that show," Rockrohr says. "They had a drum machine. He said they sucked."
During a preview of the tour in mid-March, we basically crash the salon, staring over the damp and freshly foiled heads of patrons to look around the space, which is still laid out like it was during its music heyday.
"Chicago Rocks" stops at a few existing places, such as the Metro, 3730 N. Clark, where we stand on stage and see the unnaturally tidy dressing rooms backstage, and '90s rock star hangout the Rainbo Club, 1150 N. Damen, where we enjoy a beer and listen to some of Rockrohr's tales about the late Jim Ellison (Material Issue).
Much of the tour, though, involves driving by and standing in front of places of interest that are not physically interesting, or even still there. The old Wax Trax! Records shop -- opened in 1978 and eventually site of a record label that produced dance-rock bands like Ministry, Front 242, Front Line Assembly and KMFDM -- is now the Lincoln Park Institute for Oral, Facial & Cosmetic Surgery, 2449 N. Lincoln, shuttered on Saturdays. Continuing that trend, the West End Music Club, booked by Sue Miller in the '80s before she took on the famed Lounge Ax, is now Westend Dental, 1170 W. Armitage.
Fortunately, Rockrohr's not just a hired guide. He's been involved, and he has loads of usually colorful information. He sets the scenes with his own tales (he was a college buddy of Wilco's Jay Bennett, expect an earful) and repeated suggestions to see the 2007 documentary "You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984."
"There was, uh, lots of debauchery," Rockrohr says about the Ministry recording sessions at the Chicago Trax studio, formerly located where the Sidetrack gay bar is now at 3349 N. Halsted. "Al Jourgensen invited Timothy Leary to do some spoken-word parts for that record. Tim Leary pulled Reid Hyams aside and said, 'I'm concerned about Al. He's doing too many drugs.' If Timothy Leary thinks you're you're doing too many drugs, you're doing too many drugs."
Tour guide Phil Rockrohr supports the "Chicago Rocks: 1980-2002" tour (and fills the gaps) by sampling music related to the points of interest. Here's what we heard snatches of along the maiden voyage:
"Wham Bam Son of Sam," Tutu & the Pirates
"F---up," Rights of the Accused
"We're Da Machine," the Effigies
"Elephant's Graveyard," Strike Under
"I Am One," Smashing Pumpkins
"Cherub Rock," Smashing Pumpkins
"Cold Life," Ministry
"Work for Love," Ministry
"Take One," Front 242
"Everyday Is Halloween," Ministry
"Gacy's Place," Mentally Ill
"Who Are the Boys?," the Buzzards
"Gotta Get a Record Out," Green
"Valerie Loves Me," Material Issue
"After This Time Is Gone," 11th Dream Day
"F--- and Run," Liz Phair
"Left Side Clouded," the Sea & Cake
"Seether," Veruca Salt
"Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon," Urge Overkill
"Fly on the Wall," the Jesus Lizard
"Bound for the Floor," Local H
"I Need You Around," the Smoking Popes
"Can't Stand It," Wilco
"California Stars," Billy Bragg & Wilco
"Baba O'Riley," the Waco Brothers
"Kerosene," Big Black
"Jesus Built My Hotrod," Ministry"
"Let's Kill Saturday Night," Robbie Fulks