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Chicago punk loses a champion

Dem Hopkins stands in a one-square-meter house designed by architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel and built by a team of unhoused youth. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless brought it to Riot Fest in 2012. Credit: Jeff Foy

In 1980, Chris Bjorklund frequented a River North bar called Oz, which two years earlier had become one of the first places in Chicago to embrace punk. He visited often enough that he got to know the owner, Dem Hopkins. Bjorklund played in a band called Strike Under, and Hopkins offered to introduce him to another Oz regular who’d started making music. 

“Sure enough, I was in there another night, and Dem pointed out this guy who was probably about six foot three, with a huge black overcoat, very thick pancake makeup, and a corkscrew blue hair quiff—which, at the time, you didn’t do in Chicago,” Bjorklund says. “Dem pointed him out and said, ‘That’s Jeff.’” 

Bjorklund walked over to Jeff Pezzati, who’d been posting flyers for his band, Naked Raygun. “We started talking, and that was the forming of an alliance—we played with them a lot, they became friends of ours, we shared a practice space,” Bjorklund says. Both bands also went on to perform at Oz. The bar was a focal point for Chicago punk, partly because of Hopkins’s talent as a musical matchmaker. 

“I think Dem did that kind of thing all the time, and that was something I think was really important to him,” Bjorklund says. “He expected nothing from it—that wasn’t his intent at all. He just liked the idea of connecting people and building communities because people were interested in the same thing.”

Hopkins, who died January 24 at age 67, ran Oz in three different locations between 1978 and 1981. To create its first incarnation, he transformed the Greenleaf, a Rogers Park gay bar he owned; he later moved Oz to River North and finally Lakeview. In March 1981, a few months before the Lakeview location closed, engineer Timothy Powell of Metro Mobile Recording ran three nights of sessions on the bar’s stage, documenting six local bands—most of whom frequently played at the bar—in front of a captive audience. 

The resulting compilation, Busted at Oz, includes the very first recordings by the Effigies, Naked Raygun, and Silver Abuse. According to Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman’s 2007 Chicago punk documentary, You Weren’t There, it helped establish the Chicago punk scene nationally. “Busted at Oz, in many ways, is almost like Ramones’ Ramones,” says Riot Fest cofounder Mike Petryshyn. “It’s a testament of the time.”

Busted at Oz full album
Fourteen of the 16 tracks on the original Busted at Oz compilation

Petryshyn met Hopkins in 2010 through Michael Nameche, director of development for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Hopkins had interned for CCH as a law student two decades earlier, and he renewed his connection to the organization after seeing Patti Smith at Park West as part of CCH’s Hopefest in February 2010. 

For years Hopkins had resisted fellow punks’ entreaties about Oz reunions, but he had such a great time at Hopefest—and he was already so sympathetic to CCH’s mission—that he reversed himself completely. He pitched Nameche on a benefit show for CCH that fall that would bring together the Busted at Oz bands. Nameche connected Hopkins with Petryshyn because Riot Fest had played a role in Naked Raygun’s long-running reunion, which began with a Congress Theater gig in 2006. 

In late spring 2010, Nameche and Hopkins met with Petryshyn at Cobra Lounge. What Nameche thought would be a half-hour conversation lasted close to five. “Dem told stories about what the early days were like, and Mike had all these stories of what those band members were up to now,” Nameche says. “I could not get a word in edgewise.” 

Petryshyn and Hopkins went out for a smoke break together near the end of that hangout, and when they came back inside, Petryshyn laid out a game plan for an Oz reunion. That year’s Riot Fest kicked off Wednesday, October 6, with a Double Door benefit show that featured latter-day versions of four bands from Busted at Oz. Petryshyn has since facilitated some of the biggest reunions in punk history—among them the Replacements, Jawbreaker, and the original Misfits—but the Busted at Oz reunion still stands out to him. “It had a far different feel of any show I’ve ever done,” he says.

Hopkins continued to build on the relationships he’d developed with Petryshyn and Nameche. Within a year or so of the Busted at Oz show, he joined CCH’s board of directors, and he spent months helping Riot Fest establish its nonprofit foundation in 2015. He grew close with his new friends, and they’d bond over music. “I made a list of shows, and he would take me to shows,” Nameche says. “I crossed a lot of bands off my list because Dem was like, ‘We’re going to see Swans.’ Or ‘We’re going to see Pere Ubu.’ Or ‘Diamanda Galás.’” 

Hopkins was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, but he still made it out to shows when he could manage it. He sought out new music with the fervor of a teenager, even as the generations marched on—as devoted as he was to the punk of his youth, he didn’t let that legacy ossify around him. 

When his health improved enough in fall 2021, he and Nameche went to Sleeping Village to see one of Hopkins’s favorite current bands, young UK postpunks Black Midi. Hopkins immediately bought tickets for their show in Milwaukee the following month, and in March 2022 he saw them a third time at Metro. That zeal sprang from the same power source he tapped to create one of the very first homes for Chicago punk bands.

“He was a righteous dude,” Pezzati says. “Without him, I don’t think we’d be where we’re at today with punk rock in Chicago. He really blazed a trail.”

Dem Hopkins and Elvis Costello hang out backstage at Riot Fest in 2012. Credit: Jeff Foy

Born in Michigan on November 16, 1955, Demetrius Hopkins came to Chicago with his mother at an early age. By his senior year at Lane Tech, he’d developed a righteous streak. Hopkins and fellow student David Rabin spearheaded a fight with the school’s administration, which wanted to punish them for publishing an alternative newspaper called The Oppressed. Hopkins and Rabin took their battle to the Commission of Inquiry Into High School Journalism convened by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, which included an overview of the situation in the 1974 book Captive Voices: High School Journalism in America

Administrators harassed Hopkins and Rabin and threatened them with suspension. The two of them filed suit against the principal, the assistant principal, and the Chicago Board of Education. They settled the case out of court, and Hopkins and Rabin had all disciplinary actions expunged from their records.

When Hopkins came out to his parents in his teens, they kicked him out of the house. His close friend Laura Hadley says he lived on the streets of New York City for a spell. She’s 17 years younger than Hopkins, and she met him through her father, Charles, while she was still an infant. Hopkins got to know Charles Hadley by working with him on political campaigns in Chicago, and depending on the day’s childcare arrangements, Laura was sometimes around too. “He was telling me stories about me learning to walk in the campaign office,” she says, remembering the conversations she had with Hopkins in the weeks before his death. 

Charles and his wife, Georgian, eventually decided to take Hopkins in—he was around 20 years old at the time, and he hadn’t found a settled place to live since his eviction from the family home. Laura, then three, got along splendidly with Hopkins. “He was like a big brother to me,” she says. “He taught me to say ‘Blow it out your ass.’”

Charles Hadley also invested in Hopkins’s work outside of politics. Laura says her father was a silent partner in queer hiring agency Lend-a-Man, which Hopkins ran with business partner Dick Nielsen. Hopkins also bartended at the Greenleaf, and when he decided to buy the place in the mid-1970s, Charles put money into it too. Laura sometimes visited the Greenleaf during the day, and she’d commandeer the jukebox. “Here I am, four or five years old,” she says. “They’d make me a Shirley Temple, I’d play pinball, and I’d play the ‘Happy Birthday’ song over and over and over.”

Hopkins imprinted his taste on the jukebox too. He loved glam, and after punk broke, he added singles by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. In mid-1977, Hopkins began spending time at a Lincoln Park gay bar that in May had become the city’s first punk disco. At that time, La Mere Vipere provided the only home away from home for punk and punk-curious Chicagoans, but in April 1978, a mysterious fire closed it for good. La Mere co-owner Noah “Noe” Boudreau eulogized the bar in the debut issue of Chicago new-wave zine Praxis. “Our friendships, our varied musical tastes, and our senses of humor were not torched,” he wrote. “If anything we all have a sharper edge about us.”

When Patti Smith and her band headlined the Park West later that April, someone shouted in the middle of the show, “Patti, they burned down La Mere!”

Patti Smith Group Pumping My Heart, Park West 1978
A fan shouts “Patti, they burned down La Mere!” before this April 1978 performance of “Pumping My Heart.”

“All right, so they burned it down, so build another one,” Smith responded. “Don’t whine to me that they burned it down, build another one. You’re the only ones that are gonna do it.”

Hopkins was in the crowd. He left the show with designs to turn the Greenleaf into a punk bar. Oz was about to be born. 

Oz wasn’t the only gay bar to turn punk after the fire at La Mere. DJ Nancy Rapchak convinced the owner of a divey River North gay bar called O’Banion’s to give punk a shot in June 1978. Chicago punk often grew out of gay bars, and many of the queer folks who took to punk did so in reaction to mainstream gay culture. 

Hopkins provoked plenty of criticism by turning his bar punk, though, and not just because some of his regulars didn’t like the music. Many resented a rebranding that would attract straight people to a neighborhood gay bar—Rogers Park was far from the city’s centers of gay nightlife at the time, so the Greenleaf had outsize value as a sanctuary.

Still, Oz retained a lot of its existing crowd even as punks discovered it. “I always thought there was an uneasy alliance between punks and the gay community in Chicago,” Bjorklund says. “We were both looked at sideways by the city at large. Then again, there’s a divergence, because one is an immutable characteristic, and one is a choice. But then also, in the early punk scene, there were a lot of gay people involved.” 

Harry Smail, who became close friends with Hopkins, first went to Oz at the behest of his new girlfriend Patti Sullivan. “The dance floor was dangerous,” Smail says. “They had the speakers mounted way out off the wall, so you could run into them very easily. After you ran into it once or twice, you got to be a little more careful. I think the DJ booth was in a closet off the dance floor. It seemed like it had been an apartment before they made it into a club.” 

Oz was supposed to hold at most 120 people, so it soon had a hard time accommodating Chicago’s small but growing punk community. In 1979, Hopkins booked Canadian hardcore band D.O.A. for their first Chicago show, and it was so mobbed that people ended up stuck on the sidewalk outside Oz, listening from there. “To this day, [it’s] one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,” Bjorklund says. “It was absolutely explosive.” 

“We recorded D.O.A. there,” says Terry Nelson, co-owner of short-lived Chicago label Autumn Records. His place was a couple blocks away from Oz. “Someday maybe it will be released.”

Oz didn’t last much longer at its Rogers Park location; in 1980 Hopkins moved the bar to 112-14 W. Hubbard in River North. On Oz’s last day in the old Greenleaf space, Pezzati’s older brother, Marko (Naked Raygun’s founding bassist), hatched a plan to get a souvenir. “My brother was pretty smashed,” Pezzati says. “He said, ‘Cause a diversion’—so I started making a ruckus and throwing barstools all over the place. My brother ran out the back with a barstool and said, ‘We had to keep a memento of Oz.’”

Dem Hopkins, with CCH director of development Michael Nameche at right, shows off the prize he won in the CCH Riot Fest raffle in 2016: a guitar signed by Naked Raygun. Credit: Jeff Foy

The River North location of Oz, amid a phalanx of gay bars on Hubbard, had three times as much space. A neighboring gay bar had an interior doorway that led into Oz, allowing people to pass back and forth without going outside. 

“In reality, there was no separation among the clienteles,” says Jeff Lescher, who would form indie-rock band Green in 1984. Word of mouth about Oz had made its way to suburban River Forest, where Lescher lived when he first set foot in the club. “The entire scene was what I imagined Berlin must have been like in the 20s,” he says. “The punk music scene in Chicago was nonexistent at the time. I was really glad to have found people who were listening to and interested in the same music and wildness for which I’d been searching.”

Hopkins let his patrons have the run of the place, probably to a fault. “He just let people, more or less, do what they want,” Smail says. “That’s why there were always problems with the sink being broken and stuff like that.” Smail, like a lot of regulars, learned more about Hopkins as a person once Oz moved to River North. “We would go down there and sit at the bar, late at night on weeknights,” Smail says. “There wouldn’t be a lot of people there. That’s when we got to know each other better. We’d sit around and talk.”

Pezzati says that on some nights the only other person he’d see at Oz was Camilo Gonzalez of the band Silver Abuse, who would join Naked Raygun on bass in 1981. Pezzati remembers spending at least one night hanging outside the bar with Hopkins and his boyfriend at the time, Gary Burrell. Hopkins, Burrell, and Pezzati later took three Oz regulars who went to high school in Skokie to their senior prom. Hopkins wore a military uniform he’d found at a thrift store, which drew the attention of one of the girls’ fathers. “The guy gave him the once-over about exactly what rank he was,” Pezzati says. “Dem bullshitted him pretty well.”

Naked Raygun played the second incarnation of Oz a few times. Founding Effigies guitarist Earl “Oil” Letiecq says his band made their Oz debut at the Hubbard location. Hopkins “was such a nice, very gracious guy,” he recalls. “He was so thrilled to have us playing there and just happy to get the whole thing rolling.” 

Hopkins briefly managed the Effigies, though Letiecq can’t remember what that work actually entailed. He’d just moved from upstate New York, and he was still getting the lay of the land. “I didn’t know that much about him or the scene yet—I was still pretty green,” Letiecq says. “As I look back on it now, I wish I had realized how significant he really was at the time.”

The Effigies - Haunted Town 12'' 1981
The Effigies’ debut release, the 1981 EP Haunted Town

Before the end of 1980, Hopkins moved Oz to its final home at 3714-1/2 N. Broadway. Naked Raygun, the Effigies, and Strike Under played the Lakeview spot on New Year’s Eve. Oz had been drawing heat from Chicago cops since Rogers Park, and it escalated constantly. Smail says Hopkins got busted so often at the Hubbard location—frequently for that broken sink—that the bar set out a donation jar for his bail money. By his own reckoning, Hopkins was arrested more than 20 times while running the three locations of Oz. 

The Broadway location got the worst of it by far. Oz had previously benefited from taking over existing bars, but in Lakeview, Hopkins had to secure a liquor license—meaning he operated without one for about three months. As soon as the license went through, the cops knew exactly where his new bar was, and they were relentless. “For Dem to do what he did, and get thrown in the Addison Street lockup time and time again, basically just a struggle to keep the place open, that’s pretty amazing,” Bjorklund says. “I don’t use that word lightly, because it’s bandied about way too much, but in his case, it really is.”

Hopkins knew Oz couldn’t survive with police targeting the place. And he knew that the bands that called Oz home were doing something special. He wanted to document them. “I heard these rumors from people that he wanted to have an album recorded there,” Nelson says. “So we approached him about the fact that we could record the thing and put it out.” 

Timothy Powell recorded the Busted at Oz sessions across three weeknights, with two bands performing full sets each night. The compilation showcases five Oz regulars—Naked Raygun, the Effigies, Strike Under, Silver Abuse, and the Subverts—plus postpunk band Da, included at Nelson’s behest. And since this was Oz, the cops did invite themselves in one night, though they were called away to a shooting before they could shut anything down. 

Nelson remembers being blown away by Strike Under’s performance. “Chris and Steve [Bjorklund] didn’t get along sometimes, but man, that was an electrifying set,” he says. “There were sparks flying in the air between the two of them.”

Smail found out about Busted at Oz when Autumn Records released it later in 1981. “I was surprised when it came out,” he says. “I said [to Dem], ‘When did you do this?’ ‘Oh, we did it here and there.’ I was like, ‘OK, that would’ve been nice to know—I would’ve come over.’ But he didn’t clear things with me, so I just didn’t know.”

Dem Hopkins works at DeLux Bar & Grill in June 2013 for CCH’s Cheers for Change fundraiser, where volunteer bartenders donated all their tips to the nonprofit. He also reached out to Patti Smith’s manager, who provided a signed drumhead to be auctioned. Hopkins raised $3,362. Credit: Jeff Foy

After Hopkins closed Oz in mid-1981, he launched a new bar in the same location called F-Beat. Its most notable attraction was its weekly drag show. “It was a bar that a lot of people who used to go to Oz showed up at and said, ‘Am I at the right bar?’ Because it was very different,” says Liz Bjorklund, Steve’s former wife. “A lot of drag queens, a lot of people who probably didn’t fit into other bars at the time. The music was the same.”

F-Beat became a target too, but for robbers instead of cops. “One time they came in and stole all [Dem’s] vinyl, which was a huge loss,” Smail says. “They came in later and stole all his equipment. By that point, [Dem was] done.” Hopkins closed F-Beat, but he wasn’t through with nightlife. By the mid-1980s, he and Burrell were barbacking for a gay bar at 4923 N. Clark called Different Strokes. 

“It was a weird, fun place that everybody went,” says Bob Irey, who began frequenting Different Strokes in 1985 and started a music project called A/Noyz in ’87. “It wasn’t a specific type of bar—it was a weird bar. Unusual people of all ages. Some of my best friends were three times my age.” 

One of Irey’s closest friends at Different Strokes was a sixtysomething woman who went by Melody. “You’d walk in and she’d say, ‘Hey, come put your dick on the bar, I’ll buy you a shot,’” Irey says. “I don’t know if too many people took her up on it.” The bar’s owner outfitted the place with religious fixtures—prayer benches, stained glass windows, crucifixes—and Hopkins kept them when he became owner in the late 80s. “Suddenly the Cramps were on the jukebox,” Irey says, “instead of stuff from the 60s.”

Even before Hopkins took over Different Strokes, he’d imposed some of his sensibilities on the bar. Soon after Lescher started playing around town with Green in 1984, he got a call from Hopkins. He offered Lescher $300—about six times what Green made for a typical show—to play Different Strokes. 

Lescher says Hopkins’s early support did as much for Green as Steve Albini’s review of their debut EP in local zine Matter. “Dem, I don’t know how many people knew he liked Green,” Lescher says. “But I know that when he told me he thought we were really good—’You got the ability to get out of Chicago and actually do some stuff’—it really motivated me and gave me some validation.”

Green Performs GOTTA GETTA RECORD OUT at Phyllis' Musical Inn June 1987
Green was recorded at Phyllis’ Musical Inn in 1987 by Columbia College students whose instructor was a fan.

Hopkins attracted a lot of his old regulars to Different Strokes, but most of its patrons were necessarily from outside his circle. Smail recalls Richard M. Daley making a campaign stop there on his first run for mayor in 1988. And Hopkins got to be friendly with people he first met at Different Strokes—he and Irey initially bonded over music. “He loved pinball,” Irey says. “I don’t think the bar originally had pinball, but they got two pinball machines, and nobody could beat him.”

In 1989, Hopkins enrolled in law school at the University of Illinois Chicago. He graduated in 1992, and Smail made a frame for Hopkins’s diploma out of an old leather jacket. “He was the punk-rock attorney,” Smail says. “So he needed a punk-rock frame for his diploma.” 

As a law student, Hopkins interned for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “He said he worked on the very first Illinois homeless voting rights legislation,” Nameche says. In December 1992, Illinois passed the first statewide law allowing the unhoused to register to vote without a permanent address. 

In the early 90s, Smail and Hopkins began working together during the day, not just hanging out together in Hopkins’s bars at night. “He was doing a lot of pro bono work with HIV victims who needed help, which was something he was really proud of,” Smail says. “I was managing a program that did job coaching and job placement for people with disabilities. I started to work in the HIV community to try to find job opportunities for folks who were HIV positive and had trouble working in so many places, because everybody was so fearful. I went to Dem and got him hooked up with the agency I was working with—he was able to help them understand the community.”

Hopkins was still running Different Strokes too. “The AIDS crisis took its toll around that time,” Irey says. “Suddenly people’s barstools were empty. They were gone.”

Nameche couldn’t miss Hopkins during Patti Smith’s Hopefest performance at Park West in 2010. “During the opening band, there was one guy that was dancing in a way that even in a packed room, he was having the most fun,” Nameche says. “I could recall, before meeting him, watching people go, ‘Let’s have as much fun as that guy over there.’”

By 2010, Hopkins no longer owned, ran, or worked in a bar—he was experiencing nightlife largely as a spectator. In the mid-2000s, he’d moved to La Salle, a couple hours southwest of Chicago. He bought a house there in 2005, painted it purple, and turned the garage into a private re-creation of a club. “He had it painted all black, put in ten times the insulation, and had a mini hot tub,” Nameche says. “He had industrial club lighting that could power a nightclub.” 

From 2000 till 2014, Hopkins worked as a tax-law analyst for Dutch information-services company Wolters Kluwer. In 2016 he started with Strafford Publications, an Atlanta-based company that provides continuing education for attorneys and accountants. No matter what job he held, he spent a lot of his free time combing the Internet for music—he’d often download live and rare recordings and burn them onto CD-Rs.

“He showed up one day with all these bootlegs—I don’t know where he got them,” Petryshyn says. “It was stuff I’d never heard before. There was a Raygun show from San Francisco ’89, I think, and it was fucking brilliant. I don’t know how he got it—I didn’t even ask how he got it. But it was something he probably had for a long time and was like, ‘I think Mike would like this.’ And he was absolutely right.”

Petryshyn grew close with Hopkins while organizing the Busted at Oz reunion for Riot Fest in 2010—Hopkins helped with some of the behind-the-scenes work. “We were working in tandem,” Petryshyn says. “It was like riding a bike again. It was so easy for him—it was natural.” It helped that the musicians were loyal to Hopkins. “They all loved Dem,” Petryshyn says. “They spoke so highly of him. There was probably decades between seeing him.”

Riot Fest, Busted at Oz Reunion, Naked Raygun, 10.06.2010
Dem Hopkins speaks at 0:38 in this video recap of Riot Fest’s 2010 Busted at Oz reunion.

Petryshyn was nervous about making the benefit a success. “Just organizing it, in some ways, was like herding cats,” he says. But the show sold out, and it raised almost $5,000 for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. It also catalyzed a long-standing relationship between CCH and Riot Fest. When the festival moved outdoors in 2012, Petryshyn asked Nameche if CCH would be Riot Fest’s charity partner. 

“That became a very lucrative partnership,” Nameche says. “We’ve been able to raise a lot of money over the years, and Dem was involved in that as well.” Every year at Riot Fest, CCH raffles off a small museum’s worth of signed merch and gear from musicians. In 2016, Hopkins won a raffled-off guitar signed by members of Naked Raygun.

On September 19, 2022, Nameche and Hopkins went to the United Center to see Hopkins’s favorite band, Roxy Music. It was a long trip from La Salle for Hopkins. “He wanted to be in their presence,” Nameche says. “We were already talking about moving him up here, because health-wise, the cancer was spreading in his bones.” 

Just before his cancer diagnosis, Hopkins had granted Nameche medical power of attorney and made him executor of his estate. Nameche also helped Hopkins as he transitioned to an assisted living facility in Lincolnwood in November. Hopkins placed a yeti statue outside his door to identify his room, and he continued to work remotely till mid-December. 

As his health declined, Hopkins eyed a move to Buckingham Pavilion, a Chicago nursing home where Laura Hadley works. He checked in on January 14. “My mom went to see him every other day,” Laura says. “He had people around him.” 

Nameche persuaded Hopkins to come up with a list of music he wanted to hear one last time. “I was surprised by where we got with it,” Nameche says. “Because it wasn’t just punk rock.” The list included Roxy Music, Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull, Sam Cooke, Television, and something Nameche didn’t know. “He was still teaching me about artists, even at that point.” 

On January 24, Nameche walked into Hopkins’s room at Buckingham Pavilion and found a music therapist already with him. She had a guitar, and she asked Nameche what music Hopkins liked. They went down Hopkins’s list until they found something the therapist knew well enough to play. “She started playing a Sam Cooke song, and we saw his body ease up from a little bit of tension,” Nameche says. “Within minutes he was gone.”

In a few months, Nameche plans to host a big party to honor Hopkins. In the meantime, Hopkins’s estate is being transferred to CCH. “His house, his car, all of his assets are going to the coalition,” Nameche says. “That’s who he was.”

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