Review: 44 Posters, Weeds Tavern, by Dave Hoekstra and Sergio Mayora

Weeds Tavern is a bar biography, but something more, and slightly less. More or less an artist's monograph, SunTimes writer and critic Dave Hoekstra covers the titular Chicago tavern’s background with 12 pages of patron memories, primarily concentrating on the establishment’s long-time bartender/impresario Sergio Mayora and his artistic output. Through his introduction—as well as reproductions of 44 posters Mayora created to draw customers into Weeds Tavern (1555 North Dayton Street)—Hoekstra attempts to reconstruct a space and time and honor an individual he admires. The book is more successful with the second goal.

We all have a favorite bar. A place where one can or could sit, drink, and converse with fellow barflies. But while there are hundreds of places like that—a thousand million even—something made it your favorite. The bands rocked. The drinks were cheap yet strong. The music perfectly curated. And the regular crowd’s energy palpable. It was the place to be on a Saturday or whichever night.

Convincing others your bar was a combination of CBGB, Café de la Rotonde, and the Land of Oz… that’s trickier. You can explain to your pal how Zzlädøk the bartender spun Tuvan throat-singing LPs on his portable Victrola every Tuesday. And this local dude came in and sold authentic kumquat pierogis out of a hurdy gurdy, three for a buck. And how every Saturday night Compostable Bill… You know, the Compostable Bill? Anyway he'd turn up in a thrifted lavender tuxedo and recite poems about Chicago’s sewer system whilst local foamcore musician Tommy Turnover tootled on a melodica. Man, ANYTHING could’ve happened there, and it often DID.

Then your friend says, well, that sounds, uh, different.

“Different? Different!?!” You yelp, overcome. “It defined a generation! It was an age of transcendent innocence, decadence, and dehiscence! A metamorphic and epochal culmination of art and life!”

Well, your friend shrugs, I guess you had to be there.

Most memories of perfect entertainment and artistic spaces are like that. You had to be there. Seemingly deeply important as they’re happening, but impossible to preserve. No matter how well you write about them or however many photos or films you shoot, it’s just a series of microscopic slides showing cellular slivers of the original beast. One of many, to be frank. In description, the coolest places sound oddly blah, if not a wee bit forced, in retrospect.

Hoekstra tries to preserve the ineffability of Weeds Tavern, "one of the most important taverns in this city's history," by his reckoning. I wasn’t there, so I can’t testify to how well the book represents the Old Town watering hole during its '80s and '90s heyday. Nonlinear in form and based on a handful of former patrons’ reminiscences, Hoekstra’s opening pages don’t really serve as an institutional biography. Mostly it’s quick, random recollections of a quasi-bacchanalia, Dadaist environment the envy of any art school dorm—bras and condoms hanging from the walls and ceiling and whatnot. Weeds Tavern has a cool club kids vibe revolving around events that haven’t aged well. Gatherings where folks wore their underwear on the outside (“before Madonna,” we are told), and, uh… “Dress Up Like a Bitch Night.” Yikes. I guess you had to be there.

Poetry nights were the biggest to-dos at Weeds Tavern, commendably giving as one former participant states “a special forum to voices of color in the mid-1980s.” Though that same patron recalls “The things we were doing at that time we could not do today.” A phrase that rarely bodes well, but refrains in the intro. What forbidden words and practices stir up nostalgia in these folks? Unclear. Considering the greater freedom, visibility, and artistic opportunities the 21st century offers, what exactly can’t you do or say today that you could at Weeds Tavern? As I recall, most of today’s taboos were likewise frowned upon back then. Cannibalism? Grave desecration? Benightedly slaying your father the king, assuming his throne, and unknowingly marrying your mom? Still big no-nos. No one actually invokes the term “political correctness,” but, well… I suppose it’s nostalgia for a time when it was still possible to shock or be outrageous doing things that are now either commonplace or just not cool, man. Au revoir, la vie de bohème by easy means.

However much it wavers as a history, Weeds Tavern’s main purpose is to show off the wild, multicolored posters Mayora produced to advertise the place. Mayora was/is a great eminence in both the bar and book. In description, more of an Bunyanesque experience than a man. He is certainly an interesting fellow, and like most interesting fellows he’s a hyphenated type: actor-poet-artist-musician-et cetera. One of those large cosmic bodies drawing planetoids and other icy space debris into his orbit. Actor and former Weeds Tavern habitué Michael Shannon provides the introduction—an impressive get—distilling Mayora in two sentences: “He’s just one of those people who is mysterious enough to command your attention. You wanna know what he’s thinking, y’know?” Shannon further describes how the posters, many now pasted on Weeds Tavern’s wall, made the biggest impression on him. “They made you feel like you were in a special place. An exciting place, the epicenter of some sort of movement like maybe the next incarnation of Allen Ginsberg or Che Guevara or Charles Bukowski might come stumbling through the door.” Incontrovertibly, Mayora’s personality was the glue—in the sense of adhesive and inhalant—that tethered and let loose all that Weeds Tavern revelry. The posters betray a personality both large and unafraid.

Weeds Tavern the book is a handsome package. The folks at Trope Publishing Co. have done right by the 44 posters, in all their ragtag DIY glory. Poster reproductions make up the bulk of the monograph. They’re kaleidoscopic collages, vibrant and colorful if sometimes text-heavy and visually noisy. Like any ephemeral entertainment medium—menus, band posters, and so on—Mayora’s posters are interesting artifacts of their era. As personal expression, they have a chaotic pre-Macintosh look. Some excel in color, composition, and complexity; others suggest he just slapped stuff together one night. There’s a '60s Haight-Ashbury meets punk rock vibe, and they sometimes resemble the conspiratorial kook-inspired collages turned out by the Church of the Subgenius. But that’s probably reading too much into it. Mayora appears to be a student of the free associate/stick stuff together with tape and glue/daub it with magic marker/see what happens school. Sometimes it works. Other times not. But an imaginative mind is at play here. Taped or stapled to a telephone pole, storefront, or lamppost all those years ago, the posters would’ve made for eye-catching pub propaganda amongst the layered clutter of countless other fliers. Some nostalgia remains fresh and refreshing.

Doing a little online research about Mayora, I discovered other work of his. Artistically speaking, he actually has greater and more consistent success with his spirit boxes. Taken as a group, however, the posters work as a statement of time and place and a whimsical and unfettered creative force. Something that could have been presented in a more artist-centered way and without extraneous commentary from folks barely peripheral to the artist’s process.

Weeds Tavern is available at bookstores and through the Trope Publishing website.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.