Early in his first term President Obama made noise about bringing back a new deal of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) as a method to resurrect the economy. It is too bad this never came to pass.
Writers, artists, former newspaper journalists and photographers could chronicle the green economy, foodways and stories of the scores of immigrants who are changing America’s landscape.
Engaging state travel guides were written between 1935 and 1943 through the Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA. I still use them today when I travel. The project provided a platform for emerging voices such as Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Eudora Weldy and Nelson Algren (1909-1981).
In the late 1930s Algren was supervisor of the WPA Illinois office. His assignment was to gather information for a national “America Eats” program where he was to produce a series of regional guides descirbing immigration customs and settlements as they related to food.
Algren honed his interviewing skills and surely learned the timeless power of food memory, which is a device I try to use in my conversations today.
In 1992 the University of Iowa Press published his work in “America Eats,” where Algren wrote:
“If each of all the races which have been subsited in the vast Middle West could contribute one dish to one great midwestern cauldron, it is certain that we’d have therein a most foreign and gigantic stew: the grains that the French took over from the Indians, and the breads that the English brought later, hotly spiced Italian dishes and subtly seasoned Spanish ones, the sweet Swedish soups and the sour Polish ones, and all the Old World arts brought to the preparing of American beefsteak and hot mince pie. Such a cauldron would contain more than many foods. It would be at once, a symbol of many lands and a melting pot for many people.
Many peoples, yet one people, many lands, one land.”
And many peoples will gather at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at Lottie’s Pub, 1925 W. Cortland (at Winchester) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Nelson Algren Committee. The committee has helped keep Algren’s work and life alive and in the public eye since it was formed in the basement of Lottie’s. For decades Lottie’s basement was the home of all-night poker games which were financed in part by Algren. One time Algren played a poker game fueled by advance money for an unwritten book. He lost the advance in the game.
Chicago theater veteran Donna Blue Lachman will be on hand as will former Saturday Night Live writer (1975) Nate Herman, who performed at the inaugural event. Archivist Tony Macaluso of WFMT will present rarely heard Terkel interviews with Algren and expect an appearance from historical re-enactor Paul Durcia. The group will also celebrate the upcoming release of “The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All,” the definitive documentary about Algren, which the committee helped produce. Co-creator Mark Blottner will be on hand to offer a sneak preview.
Blottner’s documentary looks at Algren’s political views while the previously released Michael Caplan biopic “Algren” focused on Algren’s literary career. “The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All” is inscribed on Algren’s headstone in the Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, N.Y. (John Steinbeck also lived in Sag Harbor from 1955 until his death in ’68). In his true independent style, Algren chose eternal words that were not his own. Great Plains novelist Willa Cather came up with the road quote.
Committee co-founder Warren Leming will be on hand and he has worked as a liasion with Seven Stories Press to get Algren’s work reissued. Previously unpublished works like “America Eats” and “Nonconformity” are now available to the public.
The committee celebration includes free pizza and a cash bar. Admission is just $10, $5 if you are a student, senior, cash strapped or all of the above.
You can keep the ball rolliing at 7 p.m. Nov. 28 when Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen, welcomes storied Algren photographer Art Shay as he opens an exhibit of his documentary photographs of Algren in Chicago. Shay will give a talk and there will be ample beer from Three Floyds Brewing and wine from Red & White Wines.
I was at the first Nelson Algren Committee event, Dec. 2, 1989 at Lottie’s and I’ll be at this one
Talk about food? The 1989 event was catered old world Polish style by the late great Sophie Madej, owner of the Busy Bee Restaurant, which was under the El tracks just a couple blocks away from Algren’s home, 1958 W. Evergreen. The Busy Bee is one reason I moved into a graffiti-laden shooting gallery at 1501 N. Wicker Park in 1979.
Food was always on Algren’s radar. One of his most popular lines comes from his 1956 novel “A Walk on the Wild Side,” (the template for the Lou Reed hit) where he wrote, “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
Well, there was that one time I was playing cards with Doc at Mom’s and went home with the paroled waitress……
Proceeds from the $5 cover in 1989 that night were to be used to honor Algren with a work of art. The artwork or statue has never come to fruition. I loved Harry Caray, but if Chicago can have a statue of Harry Caray, there certainly should be a physical artistic tribute to Nelson Algren:
A wrinkled face with rolled up sleeves.
Former committee member Char Sandstrom advocated a memorial fountain to be dedicated to Algren at the “Polonia Triangle” park and subway stop at Division, Ashland and Milwaukee. The fountain with a plaque honoring Algren came to fruition in September, 1998 in a project by the Chicago Public Works Commission. The committee also worked with Chicago-based Seven Stories Press in promoting and re-issuing Algren’s books.
Algren was born as Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit in 1909 and moved with his family to the south side of Chicago when he was three years old. His mother ran a candy store on the south side. Algren left Chicago in 1975.
Through the early days of the committee I got to know founding member Stuart McCarrell. The Chicago playwright-electrical engineer died in 2001at age 77. Stuart was instrumental in getting a plaque in front of the Evergreen address. There is also a marker at the Evergreen site as part of the Chicago Tribute historical location project, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune Foundation.
McCarrell and Algren were die hard White Sox fans. During the mid-1960s they would stop at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap in Little Italy for a meal and a couple of glasses of tap beer before a game. The White Sox often would lose in their presence, which McCarrell said fit Algren’s under-dogged character. He had deep empathy for people oppressed by legal and political maneuvers.
“The great thing about Nelson is that he was a gut radical,” McCarren told me on the eve of the committee’s first event in 1989. “He would pay $65 a month for this working class apartment on the third floor of 1958 [Evergreen]. He always acted, dressed and lived as a member of the proletariat.
“Nelson was one of the first guests on [Sun-Times columnist Irv] Kupcinet’s program. What made it a good program was that Nelson represented the outsiders and the unknown point of view. He’d never dress up. Then, they’d say things like, ‘Mr. Algren, why is it you associate so much with that type of people?,’ meaning the poor and underclass. He’d say, ‘The strange thing is that I associate with people like you.’ He had a great empathy for the least of these.”
Algren biographer Bettina Drew wrote, “The gates of his soul opened on the hell side.”
Tributes will be paid to McCarrell and Algren friend Studs Terkel at Lottie’s. After Algren died of a heart attack, his body was taken unclaimed to Manhattan, about an hour north of his home. Studs was the first on the phone to get the body released.
Algren remains fiercely relevant with the great divide between the haves and have-nots in contemporary American society. He saw the deep end of a similar polarization in the diners, restaurants and kitchens of at the end of the Depression.
The long Midwest shadows of the late 1930s colored his words forever, just as the dry California fields influenced John Steinbeck. If he were alive today, Algren would have nothing to do with Chicago’s Michelin rated restaurants or fancy bars with $20 cocktails.
He would have something to do with you. And he does.
We are a quiet but intrepid tribe, those of us who are in the growing number of parent caregivers.
We are the I’m Coming Soon Platoon.
I’ve refrained from posting much about my summer journey: taking care of my 92-year-old mom with dementia and heart disease and a father with Parkinson’s Disease who turned 94 on Nov. 17. Perhaps their challenges are private. But I now know the pharmaceutical department at the Meier store in Aurora like the back of my hand. Nitrile exam gloves? Aisle 4. Personal cleaning wipes: Aisle 2. I know as much about hospice care as I know about the ’69 Cubs.
What has happened to me this year came from a higher place I cannot explain.
I left my job of 29 years in March. I finished my book “The People’s Place (Soul Food Restaurants And Reminisces From The Civil Rights Era To Today),” due in October on Chicago Review Press. I handed the book in on Friday, Aug. 8. On Aug. 10 I was wheeling my Mom into the emergency room.
She spent eight days in the hospital with assorted ailments. Three days before her discharge I was with her to watch radiologists stick a long needle in her spine. This procedure was necessary to drain the fluid that had gathered between her heart and her lung. After I was done squirming in my chair one man held up a clear bag which was about the size of a Neiman Marcus purse. The bag was filled with fluid. They told me the fluid would come back soon. “She’s got about two or three weeks,” the young hospitalist told me on the day of her discharge.
And we were off to home hospice.
And we’re all still here.
Hospice includes removing the patient from medication. My Mom was taking at least 15 pills. And she got better. I’ve tried to respect her wishes and her extraordinary will.
She will signal us when she wants to travel in another direction.
To have the summer off to take care of my parents evolved into one of the greatest gifts of my life. There were tears. There was a meeting with the minister. There was a trip to the funeral home.
But there have been laughs. Flowers. And music. My Mom remembers the words to Frank Sinatra’s “Too Marvelous For Words,” although she did not take my bait on dressing up like Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga for Halloween.
We caught escaped moments without a net.
I could not have devoted so much time to each of my parents if I had a regular job. I’m the only family member in the area. My brother made trips up from Nashville, Tn. when he could. And, although I get the idea of living in the moment, there’s a chance we can l be together for the holidays. The 24-hour caregivers are great and I gave one of them a DVD of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” one of my all time favorite movies
I now feel recharged enough to also turn around and move forward with my own life.
I burned through my buyout and book advance. I’m broke but fulfilled.
At 10 p.m. Dec. 6 I’ll begin a live Saturday night “Nocturnal Journal” variety show on WGN-AM (rebroadcast on podcast and iTunes). The two-hour show will revolve like a Lazy Susan around roots music, weird music, supper club music, backroads travel, tiki bars, world music, old diners, rhythm and blues and Merle Haggard; all kinds of the stuff I did at the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m not a big talker but expect lots of guests and in-studio musicians.
L.C. Cooke, the deeply soulful brother of gospel-soul-pop singer Sam Cooke will be our leadoff guest. His benevolent spirit will send us on our way.
We will talk about “The Complete SAR Records Recordings,” my favorite reissue of 2014. Between 1960 and 1964 L.C. cut 14 tracks under the supervision of Sam Cooke. We will be giving away a few copies of the 18-track CD to listeners, courtesy of ABKCO Records.
Rick Wojcik, owner of the Dusty Groove record store will be another in studio guest for opening night. I live within walking distance of Dusty Groove, 1120 N. Ashland and spend way too much time there. Dusty Groove is a gracious sponsor of “Nocturnal Journal” and I’m sure we will be discuss holiday shopping. One of my best finds of the year at Dusty Groove has been the 6-CD import box set “Calypso Craze (1956-57 and beyond)” with a DVD and 170-page hard cover book.
Other in studio December guests month include Gene “Daddy G” Barge (Dec. 13) Robbie Fulks (Dec. 20) and ChristmasCurators John Soss and Andy Cirzan spinning holiday music on Dec. 20. Any other segment ideas? Email me at Contact@davehoekstra.
Gratitude to Jonathon Brandmeier, Todd Manley, Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano for the encouragement. Thanks to Robert Feder for the kind words. And thanks to all the social media support. I hope we can live up to it.
Away from radio, we’re working on our home grown documentary pilot on the atmosphere and community that informs the music of the Springfield, Missouri region. (Like Les Blank with no financial backing.) This idea was hatched through numerous interviews I did with Springfield bassist and studio owner Lou Whitney over the last 10, 15 years. (A couple of them are cataloged on this website.) Besides music over the years we talked about religion, Route 66, cashew chicken in Springfield and the challenges of being a Cubs fan in Missouri.
Lou’s death from kidney cancer in October inspired me to finish this book and documentary of atmosphere and community. Lou is with us every step of the way. Already I owe thanks to Lloyd Hicks (Springfield drummer and historian), Chris Ligon, Heather McAdams (our narrator) , Victor Sanders (film editor), Lance Tawzer (former Material Issue bassist who is book designer and editor), Rene’ Greblo (photographer-sound man) Tom Vlodek (cameraman) for believing that the confluence of weird spirits on the Ozarks may only be equaled by Memphis, Tn. and New Orleans.
Before Lou’s Nov. 9 euphony service at the Savoy Ballroom in Springfield Eric Ambel, Scott Kempner, Andy Shernoff, Mary McBride, Vance Powell, Mark Bilyeu and Vicky Self were all gracious enough to sit down for on-camera interviews to accompany the July footage we shot of Lou, Lloyd, Joe Terry and Donnie Thompson.
I hate self-promotion. I only mention the cast to whet your appetite. We’re getting there.
And often times you can get somewhere when you allow higher places settle deep into your heart.
Jeremy Pollack lived in a black and white world which fit him just fine.
His love of noir’, a 1950s love song and the smell of fresh newsprint shaped a colorful life. Pollack died on Nov. 17 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 55 years old.
His death came just two months after he released “The Hard-Boiled Detective 1,” an acclaimed collection of pulp short stories set in Chicago that he wrote under the pen name Ben Solomon. The writing is tight and rhythmic which amplifies the drama.
Pollack’s characters zigged and zagged around the Panther Room at the Chez Paree, the Club De Lisa on the south side and some looked for clues at the Hart Schaffner Marx factory.
There is no answer for Pollack’s death.
I guess every death could be called untimely, but Pollack’s passing knocked me out.
He was on a roll. “The Hard-Boiled Detective 1 ” was getting good reviews. The self-published book is available on Amazon.com. On Oct. 19 he appeared on “After Hours” with Rick Kogan on WGN-AM. Unlike the majority of his characters, Pollack had a bright future. On Nov. 17 my friend Scott Momenthy told me the news from his home in Florida.
Pollack had finally left his job as department manager at Printing Arts, 2001 W. 21st St. in Broadview to devote most of his time to writing. Prior to Printing Arts, Pollack and Momenthy designed publications like “The Land Improvement Contractors of America” and “EcoLogic,” a conservative environmental magazine. While working his day shift Pollack was hard-writing at night from his Logan Square home that he shared with his partner Carolyn Smith. In Feb. 2013 he launched “The Hard-Boiled Detective” as a series of stories available through subscription.
“He wrote three stories a month and never missed a deadline,” Momenthy said Tuesday from Florida. “I was a subscriber. He was writing on the fly. He was that good. He wasn’t slaving over edits. He decided he would not name the detective. That was a big one for him. By the detective not havng a name his style grew around certain rules he set for himself about how he was going to write. He didn’t have to ponder it. He just had to adhere to principles and then naturally something unique would grow out of it. It’s a really interesting idea, a lot how you might live your life. You set up a principle, but you do go there according to what it is. It all came together in ‘The Hard-Boiled Detective,’ this guy who lived by a code. He had made up his mind before he walked into a mystery. He didn’t struggle with right and wrong. He knew.”
Pollack was born in Oak Park. His only sibling Jonathan is a classical pianist who lives in Rogers Park. His late father Sheldon was an advertising executive. During the mid-1970s his mother Lorel Abarbanel was a tireless advocate for Soviet Jews who applied to leave the USSR. She worked from her home and the Spertus College of Judica in Chicago. She was worried about the KGB, which clearly planted a few ideas in Jeremy’s mind.
Momenthy met Pollack in 1975 in an experimental alternative education program at Oak Park-River Forest High School where classmates included actor Amy Morton and Paul Mertens who went on to join Poi Dog Pondering. “I was writing songs and he was one of the few people who were listening to me,” said Momenthy, who for 20 years ran “The Rhythm and Rhyme Revue” at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. “I first got to know him as a great listener. He was taking improv classes at Second City. That was his primary interest at that time.”
Jonathan Pitts, Executive Director at Chicago Improv Productions and Improv Instructor at The Second City Training Center was in that experimental class at Oak Park-River Forest. On his Facebook remembrance Pitts wrote, “After I put together my first improv team at Triton College, Jeremy would meet me at Denny’s restaurant to drink coffee while I ate French Fries and we’d talk improv. He’d written some of his ideas into a notebook and he shared them with me. It was like learning the alphabet into a language that I’d been around but didn’t fully understand. I still use some of what I learned from him today when I improvise and when I teach.”
James Iska of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago was a member of the experimental program at Oak Park-River Forest. In a Wednesday e-mail he wrote, “I’ve never known a more naturally gifted person. By the time I met Jeremy at age 15, he was already an accomplished dancer (having performed with the Joffrey Ballet), painter and cartoonist. He made films and performed music, acted and even formed his own theater-improv company. But I think his greatest passion was movies. At the drop of a hat he could recite entire scenes from his favorite movies. He especially loved film noir which explains this last great pursuit, writing hard boiled detective stories.”
As a teenager Pollack was attracted to the joyful performance style of Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp. Gibson was the house act at the colorful Gate of Horn nightclub on the near north side. When they were teenagers Momenthy and Pollack hitchiked to the west coast to play folk music. Pollack played ukele, Momenthy played guitar. They sang in double harmony style on the streets of California. They were voices waiting to be heard.
“He began to get involved in noir’ back then, too,” Momenthy said. “He was dressing like that, writing like that, even the songs he was writing was a throwback style from the 1940s and 50s. That was consistent with him right from the start. He was always Chicago. ‘Chicago this, Chicago that.’ He took great pride in Chicago. For him to start getting recognized by Chicago people and to be thought of as a voice in Chicago was huge to him.
“He’s looking to what’s the next step. He doesn’t feel good. And ten days later he’s dead.”
In mid-August Pollack–as Ben Solomon–approached me for a blurb for his book. I saved his notes because I knew there would be more from this gifted author. “Very old-school stuff,” he wrote to me about his work. “Call it retro-detective. After 18 months with 54 stories in the bag approaching 400,000 words, I figured it was time to release a book. And volia….Merely your intention means a great deal.”
I had to deliver. I loved how Pollack put a face on sense of place.
His characters were able to breathe and move between his jazzy cadence. Pollack wrote with the detail and punch of a grizzled crime reporter.
Here is his scene from “G-Man” of walking down Lower Wacker Drive:
“Lower Wacker’s a cavernous throughway, a subterranean crazy house. For mirrors, chutes and rails, it’s filled with limestone, green lamps, echoes. You’re never certain about the reverberations you hear in Lower Wacker. Maybe they belong to you, maybe to something unseen up ahead, maybe something after you from behind. Or maybe something on another level. Or maybe it’s your pulse beating in your ears like an oil derrick from lugging a satchel filled with pig iron.”
“Jeremy was into newspapers very much,” Momenthy said. “In 1984 he published No. 1 of the Chicago Sheet literary magazine. It was called ‘Chicago’s Finest Print.’ He edited it. Ben Solomon first showed up there. It was a broad sheet. It was beautiful. He was a cartoonist and his first cartoon characters showed up there. (Songwriter) Dan Bern wrote a piece. Jonathan Pitts did a piece.”
At the same time Momenthy and Pollack were working at the Wednesday Journal, which was Oak Park’s alternative newspaper. Pollack did production work at the journal. “I was working the boards,” he recalled. “We did the Chicago Sheet on the side. We were practicing guitars in the offices of the Wednesday Journal at night. He was doing so much. He was always laughing off talent. He said, ‘It’s not talent, it’s work.’ Jeremy painted, he wrote, he designed, he edited. And he produced.”
Momenthy paused. The phone line crackled like the last sparks from a candle. “I’m really torn now,” he said. “He was very humble. I feel I should have just told the guy when he was 25, ‘Do you know who you are? Do you know how much ability you have?’
” I don’t know if he ever knew.”
A semi-private memorial service for Jeremy Pollack will be held Nov. 22 at his Chicago home.
Istanbul is an old city of deep shadows.
The density of 14 million people, regal mosques and the history of the capital of Turkey creates a humble stage. Istanbul has been the capital of four empires, ranging from the Roman Empire (330-395) to the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922).
We are all just passing through.
In March, 2012 I visited Istanbul. Chicago photographer Hector Maldonado and his wife Selin-Isin-Maldonado were my weekend tour guides and they took me to places I will never forget: coffee shops in Cihangir, which overlooked Bosphorus (the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara), a small bar in a dark alley where the walls were filled with hardcover books from floor to ceiling and a stroll down Istiklal Street where our voices were muffled by the steady hum of Saturday nightlife people.
Hector carried two cameras everywhere we went.
He found light in the veil of the mysterious city.
And now 24 of his Istanbul portraits hang in his “City Abandoned” exhibit on the second floor Rangefinder Gallery at Tamarkin Camera, 300 W. Superior St. in Chicago. His show is up through Nov. 29.
Hector is a kind man with open eyes. Before my 2012 trip he was referred to me by our mutual friend Tony Fitzpatrick. Hector and Selin dropped everything to show me around their adopted city. The story Hector shares with Selin makes me happy.
Hector was born in 1962 in Bridgeport from a Native American mother and Mexican father. He was trained as a chemical reactor operator. Selin was born in 1975 in Istanbul and grew up near the seaside Asian side of the city. She was running an art gallery in Istanbul in 2002 when Hector visited with his artist brother Jeff Abbey Maldonado. (In 2009 Jeff’s son was gunned down in Pilsen on the day of his 19th birthday and became the subject of the acclaimed “19 and a Day” documentary.) Hector met Selin at the Istanbul gallery. They married 10 months later.
They are good to each other.
In September, 2009 Istanbul became a permanent home for Hector and Selin. Her mother Nurseli died of a brain aneurysm in 2001 and Selin wanted to take care of her father Ali.
Hector and Selin returned in May of this year to settle back in Chicago.
In April, 2013 Hector and Salin were visiting Chicago to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. They were eating sushi at a north side restaurant when Salin stepped outside for a celebratory cigar. It was her first cigar in two years. She collapsed and began vomiting.
She also suffered a brain aneurysm.
While she was at Northwestern Memorial Hospital she called her father in Istanbul to say goodbye.
“It was serious,” she said last week in a conversation at the Tamarkin gallery. “They gave me a 20 per cent survival rate. I’ve lost some of my memory. I’m re-learning words in Turkish and in English. All the women in our family have brain aneurysms. It is a genetic disorder. I’m the only one who has survived it. My grandmother, my mother and aunt died from it. Because of mine they tested my cousin and they found hers without it rupturing.
“I have two more unruptured ones on the right side of my brain. They are keeping a close eye on them. In a way, it is like a time bomb.”
Hector looked at his wife. They were sitting side by side on a black couch in the gallery.
They have moved forward together in a new light.
Selin continued, “I had a second chance at life. I didn’t want to waste it there. I could be part of a protest by chance and get hit or shot and killed. I did not feel safe in my country. The political unrest was very hard for me to see. We would be having lunch and all of a sudden people are running through tear gas. Or getting beaten. I did not feel safe in my country.”
Hector’s portraits honor the Tarlabasi neighborhood of Istanbul. The area was settled in 1535 by non-Muslim diplomats and became the neighborhood of the non-Muslim lower middle class. Selin reflected, “The buildings were beautiful, made of iron work and with beautiful murals. After the war, the people were forced to leave leaving their stuff behind. Once the government realized these were million dollar lots, they said, ‘Let’s build a new city there.’ And they started forcing these families out. The last time we were there (2013) they cut their water and electricity so people were literally taking wood from the floors of the building to heat their apartments. Now it is gone. I wish they had restored a couple of these buildings. Now they are building cement, cookie cutter things.”
Hector made his pictures of gypsy kids and gentle grandfathers between 2005 and 2013. He shot on film on his 1957 Leica and developed the photos himself. “I usually don’t like posing but I used some of that,” he explained. “Sometimes I wait to see what happened. You have to be close. It took me awhile to start taking pictures of people. Istanbul has fantastic faces of people. I started taking pictures real quick without them noticing. I try to wait for moments. I respond to stuff. The Leica (camera) is very quiet. Primarily I shoot in black and white because it adds to the timeless feature”
In a Wednesday e-mail Gallery owner Dan Tamarkin wrote, “Hector Maldonado’s Istanbul work is punctuated by urban detritus countered by portraits lovingly rendered, as if to mimic the high contrast of the lighting in his images. Shot from the hip and usually with minimal preparation, Maldonado’s photographs are stirring records of the moment, a time and a place. And in many cases, these people and places no longer exist, which makes his work all the more important from a documentary perspective; a mirror held up to our own lives and and to the lives of people in far-flung places, a visage many of us never get to see. His work is timely and timeless–a series of light and shadows that allow us to see beyond the glare of the media and into the lives of the people and places of Istanbul–and wherever his travels take him.”
Hector had empathy for his neighborhood subjects.
“Growing up, I fought a lot,” he said. “I was a skinny kid. A quiet kid. But I took judo. I wrestled. We weren’t rich. We lived in a flat.”
His mother Ina Abbey was a social worker at a Cabrini-Green clinic. His retired father Jesse worked in robotics maintenance at General Motors. Selin’s mother was a professor of radiology in Istanbul and her father worked in international economics.
“I got more serious about the Istanbul neighborhood over the last three years,” he said. “The neighborhood ended up being like Cabrini-Green in Chicago. Everyone was kicked out by developers. Corrugation was put up at every block to keep the people out.
“The neighborhoods aren’t as big as they are in Chicago. This neighborhood was very poor and grittier so I like that. I ended up going places where I knew shadows would be good because there’s drama. When I started going to this neighborhood everybody told me not to go there. Everybody. But I liked the place. How were they going to stop me? I’m a grown man.”
Hector spent so much time in the neighborhood he began to earn the trust of the residents. Kids would run up to greet the bear of a man with tattoos on his arms. The large tattoo on his right arm was designed by one of Selin’s friends. The ink reflects the spirit of his Alabama-Coushatta tribe.
The original cress is called “The Twin Manifestations.” He said, “The Great Spirit had bestowed upon man the priceless gift of free will of which each individual makes his own choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil.,’ this is a fundamental teaching of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe.”
This is why Hector’s imagery reminds me of the great Istanbul photographer Ara Guler. Guler was influenced by the portraits Edward Curtis (1868-1952) took of American Indian chiefs and has said his work reflected a natural feeling for composition.
In his artist statement Hector said, “Being with a camera is the best way I have found to feel close to the earth again.” He elaborated, “Our tribe comes from a hole, a cave. The earth created us. Alabama-Coushatta—that’s the white man’s way of saying it—is the oldest reservation in Texas. My uncle is chief of the tribe. I try to stay involved. We just went to the Pow Wow in Chicago. Some Indians came to my opening so I was very happy about that.
“It is who I am, it is part of me.”
It helps him see the light.
Fiona Prine knows a few things about turning the page.
It has been 21 years since she moved to the United States. Fiona Whelan met her future husband, Maywood, Ill.-born singer-songwriter-storyteller John Prine when she was working in a recording studio in Dublin, Ireland. They married and she moved to Nashville, Tn. where they have raised three boys.
Fiona has said she heard all the words in the old country then found her voice in this country. Her sense of discovery takes her to San Francisco this weekend to visit Chilelan novelist Isabelle Allende in support of the Nashville-based Thistle Farms charity for which she is a full-time volunteer.
Meanwhile, at 8 p.m. Nov. 1 her husband will be appearing at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. John’s good rockin’ brother Billy and his band will be opening for Heartsfield at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.
You will hear songs of hope, from here to there.
Thistle Farms manufactures and distributes natural bath and body products, available in more than 200 stores nationwide. It employs residents and graduates of Magdalene, a Nashville-based residential program for survivors of prostitution, human trafficking, addiction and streets with dead ends.
Thistle Farms is a timely topic for the Chicago area with this month’s discovery of the murders of several prostitutes in Northwest Indiana. A convicted sex offender is in custody.
“I make no secret of the fact I’m in recovery,” Fiona said earlier this week in a conversation from Nashville. “This appeals to me on many levels. These are women who are recovering from very many things. The fact that many of them came off the streets drug addicted is part of their story, but not the whole story. I have connected with them my own journey of recovery from childhood trauma, my own alcohol abuse and the rest of it. It was a no-brainer.
“And the fact it is all-woman focused was appealing to me. When I came here I had no family. Essentially it was John and the family we built together. Once John’s mother died there was nobody else here.”
Fiona became involved with the organization in 2004. She actually learned about it through her son Tommy, who became best buds with Caney Hummon, the son of Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens. They were classmates at University School of Nashville (disclaimer alert–where my nephew Jude attends school). Stevens is an Episcopal priest who is married to Nashville singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon.
“The thistle is a perceived weed that will literally grow anywhere,” she said. “Then there’s derlict, dirty streets that the women walked when they were still out there. Thistles will grow between the cracks of the pavements. Becca noticed this. So now people all over the country send thistles to us. We use thistles to make our paper.” The paper is used for greeting cards, tee-shirst and very handsome bookmarks……
……..To remember where you have been.
Thistle Farms has an annual October fund-raiser and during her early years with the organization Fiona helped recruit artists. Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jennifer Nettles and oh yes, John Prine have performed t the events. “Magadelen and Thistle Farms take no funding from any governmental source,” she said. “It is all private donations. John played the second or third year I was involved and things got amped up a little bit. Gretchen Peters did a beautiful concert for us. So has Marshall Chapman. Becca is a very compelling and visionary character. Her message is simple.
“Love is the most healing force on the planet.”
Sometimes the planet appears as a shattered childhood ornament. “The women come in and they are broken in every imaginable way,” Fiona explained. “Physcially, emotionaly, spiritually, psychologically. The very simple thing of a woman getting out of prison, typically at two in the morning. They are at the front door with their plastic bags. They’ve been in maybe a week, maybe three months. Unless there is someone there to pick them up, bring them somewhere safe to sleep that night, they’re going to go right back in the neighborhood.”
Becca’s idea was to secure a house as a safe place for women off the streets. No charge. No strings attached. A “Hello In There” kind of place. The place is called Magdalene and women reside there for two years.
“They are given a key to the house and it is a model that has worked,” Fiona said. “When she has been in the program for three weeks she starts earning a stipend. That money is given to her so she doesn’t have to turn a trick to buy a pack of cigarettes. We’ve never had any break-ins, we’ve never had a murder. More than eighty per cent of the women who stay for the two years are still clean and sober two years later. We have lots of resources in the community. We have relationships with doctors. Dentists. One woman just had all her tattoos removed from her face. It’s not just, ‘Come in here, get clean and sober and you’ll be great.’ They need more than that.”
So these beautiful women leave Magdalene and then what?
A below minimum-wage job? Where is your resume?
So the next step was to establish a work venue for the women, which is now centered around a 11,000 square foot manufacturing space at Thistle Farms. “At first it was in the basement of a church making candles,” Fiona said. “It has grown from that to 2014 where we had our first million dollars in annual sales. More than 60 women are now employed at Thistle Farms (est. 2001). We have the candle making, the bath and body, sewing studios and the Thistle Stop Cafe coffee shop.”
The Thistle Stop Cafe and lunch room includes hundreds of tea cups and saucers donated by supporters from across the country. Program graduates staff the cafe.
“Terri, our barista won the opportunity last year to go to barista school,” Fiona said. “She told me, ‘I’ve never won anything in my life. I left school when I was 14.’ It’s heartlifting. It makes looking at CNN like all that is happening on another planet.”
The cafe is located next door to the Thistle Farms manufacturing facility, a former warehouse at 5122 Charlotte Pike a few miles west of downtown Nashville. Earlier this year John Prine and Pat McLaughlin played a cafe party to celebrate Fiona’s 21 years in America. When you stop by the cafe be sure to ask for some of Terri’s thistle-made brew.
Mary Baker is CEO of Monroe Harding, Inc., a residential program facility for boys and one of the oldest non-profits in Nashville. “Coming out of addiction is not easy,” she said in a Thursday phone interview. “The community that surrounds these women and that they’ve become a part of helps them grow into a whole human being and recognize that there are behaviors and choices they have made that will continue to trip them up unless they change those behaviors.
“Think of the community as a scrum if you think of Australian football. You are in the middle of a pack and it carries you along. When you first get off the street and you are clean and sober you don’t know what the heck is going on. Thistle Farms has created that community not only among the women but among the people who volunteer for the organization, the people who buy products, the people who come in to have coffee and get to know each other as well as the women who work there.” The cafe is a relatively new coffee and lunch destination in Nashville and Baker has found it as a valuable meeting place.
Just last month Thistle Farms expanded its operation to the Shared Trade Alliance (A Fair Share for Women). “We’ve partnered with 14 individual like-minded organizations,” Fiona explained. “The criteria is simple but specific. They have to be a woman-focused organization. A lot of them are run by women who have left America after their post-grad work and have gone to India, Cambodia and Africa to see if they can make a difference in the world. And they are.”
Organizations that are part of the alliance will put a Shared Trade sticker on their products to tell the consumer they are buyng something that moves women forward from poverty to independent living. Groups from Ecuador, Ghana, Kenya and Nashville already have signed up for the alliance.
Fiona and Becca are visiting Allende in San Francisco because the Chilean author has pledged $80,000 to the shared trade initiative. “I’m helping put on a market place in San Francisco,” she said. “As a matter of fact John was helping me load boxes for the UPS today.” At the same time Magadelene’s Thistle Farms integrated model has been replicated in St. Louis, Houston and New Orleans, according to Fiona.
“One of the big reasons this model works is that you have to have the community behind you,” Fiona said. “There’s no way this could happen without the help of the Nashville community. Becca will say, ‘It took a community to send a woman out on the streets. It will take that same community to bring her home.
“This is timely because we have been making contacts in Chicago. We had a Shared Trade MarketPlace on Oct. 12 in Nashville which was part of our second annual Thistle Farms Conference. We sold $28,000 worth of products in two days. That workshop and marketplace is what I want to take to Chicago.
“Ours is a big story. We were brainstorming about using social media to get more help. ALS had a simple message; dunk yourself with water and send ten dollars or whatever. The story is so big at Thistle Farms sometimes it can be difficult to narrow down.”
What has Fiona learned in her decade with Thistle Farms?
“I’ve learned that, without exception, all of these women coming in off the streets were sexually abused as children,” she answered. “They were raised in addictive homes. A lot of them suffered physical and emotional abuse. That’s a very typical story. My story doesn’t cleanly dovetail into that, but my father died when I was 13 leaving my mother and six girls. I was the oldest. I understand the poverty that came out of that. My mother had no resources. And then I understand displacement. Even though it was by choice that I came here, I was propelled.”
After Fiona met Prine she was gung-ho about coming to America. “But we had no idea the isolation I would feel and the difficulty it would be to keep in touch with my family in Ireland,” she explained. “I’m a late bloomer. I have a wonderful family, I used to work in the music business in Ireland, I have a son who came with me here that John subsequently adopted. I became connected to who I was in America. I’ve uncovered myself more than recovered. John and I talked about moving to Ireland because he loves it there and we would have had the children finish their education when they were in middle school. But I couldn’t fo it. Home was here.”
Their sons are 19, 20 and 33. The oldest son is about to be a father. “We’re going to be grandparents for the first time,” she declared. “John Prine is just besides himself. He says, ‘Great! I can go to Toys R Us again.”
Gifts are everywhere when you take time to let love into your heart.
When you show your art on the outside border of the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, you must really be a renegade.
That is where I found Isaac G. Abarca last month. He was propping up his oil on canvas paintings on a sidewalk near the entrance to the popular arts and crafts fair. He also hung his paintings like Christmas ornaments in a large honeylocust shade tree in front of Rite Liquors, 1649 W. Division.
“Hanging paintings in a tree is a beautiful thing,” Abarca said during a Sunday alcohol free conversation at Rite Liquors. “People had a lot of questions. The next day we released a painting on a (500 helium) balloons, which is even better. But no one has called me to tell me where it landed. It’s become like an urban legend. Someone said it is in a potato field in Ohio.” The lost painting was Abarca’s portrait of a half woman and half violin. Abarca attached three one dollar lottery tickets to the painting. “Next year we will release one painting an hour,” he continued. “If you have inspiration you have to use it. It is a good thing I have friends like (owner) Mike Liacopoulos at Rite Liquors. When I have ideas they say, ‘Go with it.’ I need people like that.”
The sky is the limit.
In fact, I bought Abarca’s painting of a firey Malyasian jet liner flying into the mouth of a shark. It is a sure conversation starter for quiet nights in my living room.
“I did that painting five days after the plane went missing,” he said. “Every channel on television was talking about the plane in Spanish, in English. I don’t want to hurt people in my paintings. But it is easy to me because it is happening.”
Abarca is self-taught, although he did study the brilliant colors of Dutch impressionist Vincent van Gogh. “I love oils so I looked at his techniques and his strokes,” he said. “His message is right to the point.”
Abarca is 37 years old. He is from the state of Guerrero, Mexico where his grandparents were farmers. He moved to the U.S. when he was 12. Abarca grew up in Gurnee and Highwood, north of Chicago. His mother Maria Isabel and father Isaac have been married 38 years.
When Abarca isn’t painting, he is a bartender who has worked at Wishbone in Chicago and at Chicago catering companies. “Everything brought me to America,” he said. “The way that art is required. Art is a statement of why we are here.”
Abarca moved to Chicago in 2001 and lives in Wicker Park. He used to ride his bicycle around Rite Liquors, a bar and package liquor store on the ground floor of a 117-year-old building. Regulars are lined up like weary checkpoint travelers along the maple bar that seats about 78 people. North to south, the original bar is one of the longest bars in Chicago. The bar back is at least 110 years old. “I always found this place interesting,” Abarca said. “It is like candy for adults. Look at all this liquor. You can meet interesting people here. Engineers. Police officers. Gangsters. Alcoholics.”
He found it so interesting, he once lived upstairs.
Mike Liacopoulos is a fan of Abarca’s work and shows his art in the bar. His sons Steve and Ted help run the bar and Steve was helping Abarca decorate the Division Street tree with paintings. No other Chicago artist has his work on display at Rite Liquors.
The tavern’s art history includes painter Robert Guinan, who in the early 1960s would pay customers $20 an hour to be subjects for his work. Guinan loved the once lonesome grit of Wicker Park and Maxwell Street. Unknown in Chicago, Guinan’s work has sold for as much as $30,000 a piece in France. He is included in Alex Kotlowitz’s fine book “Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago.”
“Photography students ask me if they can come in and take pictures,” said Liacopoulous, a down rite friendly gentleman who opened the original Loop Tavern at 518 S. State (now at Chicago and Ashland). “We have a colorful crowd. When I came in here I used to sell about six barrels of draught beer a weeks. Now the house drink is Jameson’s and I have at least 62 different microbrews. When the condos came in 15, 20 years ago everything just changed.”
Abarca said, “Rite Liquors is where everything happened for me. Even if the Renegade Fair had invited me I would have said no. In the winter I hang three paintings a week here. We sell them starting at $91. I send some of the money of my sales to Children’s Memorial Hospital. (I paid $150 for the Malyasian jet painting) If I dedicate myself to it, I can do 11 paintings a day. ”
But Abarca’s crowning achievement is his El Dorado Project.
This piece of art is not on display at Rite Liquors. It is in a safe deposit box at a Chicago area bank.
“It is a real human skull, based on the way the Aztecs decorated skulls in gemstones,” he said. “It is the shell of one of the most beautiful things ever created: the human brain. I decorate that in respect of it.”
Abarca has been decorating the skull with gold nuggets since 2001. He said El Dorado is currently adorned with anywhere between 50 and 70 ounces of gold.
This thing has a lot of bling.
He purchases the gold from miners in Arizona and California. “It is not done,” he said. “I’ve spent $350,000 and I still need $150,000 of gold. I sent a photo of El Dorado to the miner in California. He doesn’t want to work with me any more. He’s a very religious person and I understand that. I have a key to the safe deposit box. I take it our, work with it and put it back. When I’m done I will present it in Chicago. A human skull decorated in gold nuggets? No one has done that.”
Abacra said he purchased the male skull from the University of California. “He died in a hit and run accident in the 1970s,” he explained. “They used the body for medical purposes because no one claimed it. I was very curious what happened. I said, ‘Nobody claimed you when you were dead on the floor, but when I am done with you everyone is going to want you because you are covered in gold.’ I’m not dealing with a spirit. That’s a different thing. Energy is energy and I don’t want to mess with that. A human skull is a beautiful masterpiece itself. It is another reason I live in America. Religion is so powerful in Mexico they don’t allow you to work with human remains.”
Liacopoulous has owned Rite Liquors since 1984. “Isaac used to be my tenant,” he said in a separate interview while distributing biscuits to the tavern’s dogs. “I like the guy. He’s always happy, you never see him sad. He is fearless. You don’t meet people like him very often. And he has dreams. I came here 45 years ago from a farm in the south part of Greece. I know what is is not to have money and to have money. Isaac dreams of one day being successful. I try to cooperate with that.”
CUBA, Mo.—-Lou Whitney was proud to tell tourists and visiting musicians that the Carter Family lived in a two story Victorian brick house in 1949-50 when they appeared with Red Foley on the radio version of the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo.
That was Lou; talking about Springfield history before he would talk about himself.
In July we took Lou to the empty lot off of old Route 66 where Mother Maybellle, Anita, Helen and June Carter once lived. Lou stood tall, like a mountain in a meadow. His eyes squinted into the Ozark evening sun. He had his hands tucked in the front pockets of his blue jeans and he looked around the calm landscape. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. As always.
There were no airs about Lou Whitney.
I talked my friend and award winning CBS-TV cameraman Tom Vlodek into driving from Chicago to the Ozarks for the July weekend. Lou’s rock n’ roll band the Morells were reuniting to play a high school reunion in Springfield. We wanted to film the concert and interview band members for a possible prose-documentary that uses the acclaimed Morells/Skeletons as a window into the lost history of Springfield music. I’m glad we made that trip.
Lou died Oct. 7 at his Springfield home from complications of cancer and a fall he took in his home in late September. He was 71 years old. Lou never stopped playing and recording other voices.
He never stopped honoring the power of music.
Dave Alvin, Eric Ambel, the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, the Bottle Rockets and Wilco are among those who made the pilgrimage to record with Lou and emplloy the Morells/Skeletons at Lou’s studio in downtown Springfield.
I hear Lou just about every day.
The lineage of his own best known recordings dates back to 1979 when the pop-rock Skeletons were created as a back up band for singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Lou had been bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets rockabilly cat Billy Lee Riley) who had been playing six nights a week in the Pub Mobile bar in Rolla, Mo., halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. Lou would remind you the bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by a guy who dated “Elly Mae Clampett” of the Beverly Hillbillies.
The Morells followed around 1981, the Skeletons returned in 1992 when the San Francisco Chronicle named “Waiting” one of the top 10 albums of the year. In May, 2004 the Morells were the band playing behind Bo Diddley at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Back and forth, restless hearts. The Skeletons 1991 track “Outta My Way” got major airplay on WXRT-FM in Chicago and porn star Seka used it as a dance number when she appeared at the Admiral Theater in Chicago.
Lou had vaudeville gumption.
He fought hard in his battle against cancer. He was given six months to live in February, 2013. Lou and his beloved wife Kay drove countless eight-hour round trips between Springfield and St. Louis for experimental therapies. He had a cancerous kidney removed on May 21, 2013. Lou bought extra time to be with his family and friends and to continue to work with regional Springfield music in his studio.
In July we spent a Saturday afternoon with Lou. On Sunday we treated him at his favorite cashew chicken joint on the south side of town. Lou was sharing stories and they were good and some were spicy. Lou was an avatar of Springfield music history.
Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee. Wayne Carson, who wrote the Box Top hits wrote the Box Top hits “The Letter” and “Soul Deep” in Springfield as well as the smash co-write “Always On My Mind,” recorded by Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. His father Shorty Thompson appeared on the Jubilee radio and television shows. Actor Brad Pitt is from Springfield. Lou always had something new to drop on you. In July he told us the Birdman of Alcatraz, a.k.a. Robert Stroud, died in (a federal prison) in Springfield.
They all left.
Lou was rugged Americana before Americana got gussied up. Next fall’s Americana awards in Nashville needs to find a way to honor Lou. Like thousands of others who encountered Lou, I never grew tired of hearing his stories. Even the same story several times. Lou was the only guy I know who liked to borrow from Lil’ Abner when he talked about his adopted home town: “Springfield is more like it was the last time you were here than it is now.”
Scott Kempner of the Dictators and the Del-Lords wrote on Facebook, “Lou was a constant guide, friend, inspiration, hero and musical companion. Truly one of a kind, high-end, top shelf human being. I don’t think I could have worked with anyone else than Lou and the Skeletons, the best band in America you might not know…Taking a minute to remember them all at this time and a special salute to Lou, the greatest man I have ever known.”
In 2001 Springfield attorney and former music writer Dale Wiley started the Slewfoot Records label with Lou. They even went full tilt Alan Lomax and ventured into the field to record congregations singing hymns at rural churches around the Ozarks. In late September Wiley created “The Best Facebook Thread Ever” for favorite Lou quotes. Here’s some:
“I’ve been around the world twice and talked to everyone once”—Trent Wilson
“Did I ever tell you how to butcher a hog?”–Cecelia Ellis Havens
“Americana radio’s like Spanish fly and a nymphomaniac: everybody says they exist, but you or I sure as hell ain’t seen one”–Dale Wiley
“Lou Whitney loudly at the restaurant at the Silver Saddle: ‘I’d like some ice cream. They got no ice cream in prison.”–Eric Ambel.
“Cars are the art form of the working class”–Dave Hoekstra
“My bad. One more time,” on about my 10th take he always acts like it is him who messed up, not me…even when we all knew it was really me. And theres the time he said of my southern gospel singing mama, ‘Man, she sang the hell out of that song!”–Robin Bilyeu Rees
“I once had a felafel–I feltawful”–Rick Wood
“Give me a little George of the Jungle on the rack tom”—Trent Wilson.
Lou was reticent about playing bass with his band at the July reunion show. He was weak and he didn’t want the attention. “If I felt better I’d play with them again,” he told me. “It’s an emotional thing. I didn’t want to be ‘That Guy,’ you know the guy you see on the television special, and you go, ‘Oh my God, he hasn’t retired yet.’ I was playing when I was 70 (see my January, 2013 birthday post).
Lou did not want a funeral. “And NO band jam memorial,” his long time friend and drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks wrote in an Oct. 2 e-mail. Lou did request that his body be donated to science. Transportation costs for a Springfield funeral home to take Lou’s remains to Washington University in St. Louis were $1,200. A “Send Lou to Camp” GoFundMe campaign raised $2,525 in one day. The extra money goes to Lou’s wife and family.
Doing some quick math, Lou figured he had been playing with some core of the Morells-Skeletons (Hicks, keyboardist Joe Terry, guitarist Donnie Thompson) for 46 years.
What did he learn about himself after all that time?
“A lot of it is confidence,” he answered in satisfied tones. “When you set yourself in the middle of those guys you look good. I don’t care who you are. You know that you’re knocking it out of the park. People dance. If you’re good enough to have that day in and out you can put up with a crappy day easy. A band is like a family. Even if we didn’t see each other for two or three years, we could just pick up and go.
“That’s comforting to me.”
Lou Whitney III was born in 1943 and raised in Phoenix, Az. Singing cowboy Gene Autry was in the Army Air Corps at Luke Field in Phoenix and visited the hospital where Lou was born. “Gene Autry got my attention,” he quipped in July.
Lou was the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix and unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. His son Harold Lou Whitney was a successful Phoenix attorney.
In a tender Oct. 2 Facebook tribute, New York singer-songwriter Mary McBride wrote, “Lou was a tried and true Democrat, one of the best, who infused common sense and utter hilarity into every argument and who could actually separate the good Republicans from the bad. A skill many of us sitting out in the political left field have still not developed. I know Lou will always somehow be watching the polls and trying to steer the vote to the right side of the aisle. I know he will always editing gratuitious lines from songs that think too much of themselves. And I hope he feels great satisfaction in knowing he made an enormous impact on so many people. I am just one of them. How lucky we all are.”
Singer-songwriter-producer Ben Vaughn made it big scoring music for film and television in projects like “That ’70s Show,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Psycho Beach Party.” On his Facebook page Vaughn said it it wasn’t for Lou, he wouldn’t have a career in the music business. “He was the first guy to deem my songs worthy of public consumption,” Vaughn wrote. “In 1982 the Morells recorded a tune of mine for their album ‘Shake & Push’. Without knowing it, I had touched the hem of the garment. Everything changed for me after that. I had no idea how much respect he commanded in the music world.” The Morells amped up Vaughn’s “The Man Who Has Everything” and the Skeletons later did double keyboard justice to Vaughn’s “I Did Your Wig.”
Lou III left Phoenix by the time he was 16 to live with relatives in the mountains near Bristol, Tn. He was already following the path of the Carter Family. Lou obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he said in our 2013 conversation. He started playing in tuxedo drenched show bands that were popular in the soul-driven Beach Music scene of the Carolinas, Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. Lou was also a sideman with Arthur Conley of “Sweet Soul Music” fame.
“The World War II and Korea party guys came home with G.I. benefits,” Lou explained in July. “They went to school at the University of South Carolina. Partying every night. And going out to see these bands. Shag dancing got real big. If you wanted to play a fraternity party at the University of Alabama, you better know some Bill Deal and The Rhondells. Music trends didn’t happen all over the United States. You could go to Denver and never hear of Chairmen of the Board or the Tams. It didn’t get played. But down south it did.”
One of the Skeletons most endearing covers was the Swinging Medallions 1966 Beach Music classic “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”
In 1970 Lou moved to Springfield to sell mail order real estate to folks in Illinois and Wisconsin who were dreaming of the wide open spaces of the Ozarks. “It was a dying art,” he said in July. “In fact I saw my first fax machine in a real estate office in Springfield. But I really came here to play in bands.”
More than once Lou told me that he and his “Wrecking Crew” Morells-Skeletons musicians were defenders of the song. That’s why songwriters loved working with Lou and it is why his bands did such pure justice with the hundreds of cover songs they did over the years. With Lou on my mind I read Ken Sharp’s Sept. 27 Q & A with former Rolling Stones manager and XM-Sirius host Andrew Loog Oldham in the Sept. 27 issue of Goldmine magazine. “The world is so noisy,” Oldham said. “Music has been wounded by Steve Jobs’ technology; greed and ego is fighting for survival. The main role of the artist is to serve the song, as opposed to him or herself. That is difficult to understand in a world where all technology supports the dangerous charade. Give me John Prine any day over what Simon Cowell barfs up. What’s the result? You’ve got Adele, who is great at receiving awards, but could no more put a set together than a politician could tell the truth.”
Lou was like a good editor. He was an advocate for his talent. He never got in the way. He maintained a dignified work ethic. Here’s Lou setting the table in 1991 on L.A. hipster’s “Art Fein’s Poker Party.”
In July Lou reflected, “We played together in this tight realistic, no nonsense combo. Playing a bass part all the way through a song, the guitar rhythm and the drum pattern and singing the song. Playing the solos as they existed and getting the breaks rights. We drifted into that. We became popular. Roscoe (Eric Ambel) used to say, ‘When you play a Ramones song it sounds so perfect.’ Well, we couldn’t help it. We’re the best band in the world and we opened for this and we opened for that? I don’t know.
“We’re the band next door. Four guys you would never believe were in a band. We set up and play and if we’re having a good day you go, ‘Yow!’ Even we’re going ‘Yow!’ That’s a good thing. Being in a band is a job like anything else. We practice our songs, learn them and we get better on the job.”
Lou never stopped learning, teaching and sharing. During the rest of my visits to Springfield, I will tell tourists and visiting musicians about the benevolent magic of Lou Whitney. His humble glory roars across America.
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I wonder what my roadie friend Ilse would say about Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in Atlantic magazine where he wrote that he only wanted to live 75 years.
Ilse is 86 years old and just finished her solo Route 66 trip from Chicago to a photo conference in Albuquerque, N.M. Ilse is too busy to mope around and think about dying young.
Dr. Emanuel wrote, “The fact is that by 75, creativity, originality and producitivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us….People can continue to be productive past 75–to write and publish, to draw, carve and sculpt and compose. But there is not getting around the definition, few of us can be exceptions.”
Dr. Emanuel is the brother and health adviser to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.
A few months before Rahm was elected mayor I had a beer with him at the Matchbox in Chicago. He was no sunburst of energy himself and he’s way younger than 75.
Here’s an edited version of Ilse’s last two installments from the Mother Road. Look! She know how to type, construct sentences and crack jokes. I’d say she should take Dr. Emanuel along on her next road trip. “Ilse and Ezeikel“–it has a ring to it. He should just leave his Smiths playlist at home.
RT 66 9/27/14:
“Good morning, it’s five o’clock, but I was too tired last night to go on. I almost cannot absorb what I all seem experience, remember and feel…and it goes on for 8 days!
“Along the way were many ghost towns, picturesque stations, abandoned motels, mom and pop diners with broken neon signs. Then I took on a hitchhiker! He must have slipped in, when I was photographing. There was a big grasshopper and I wanted a picture of him, but he hopped away before I could. When I was driving on, I felt him crawling along my pants–he was faster out, then in!
“There is a town named Pampa (Tx.) and Pampa it is (in German there is a saying that if you find yourself in Pampa, you are in the middle of nowhere.) There is nothing but red earth as far as you can see, twice the wind was blowing the sand over the streets and I had to turn on the lights. I could just imagine the dust storms of the past and understood ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ even better…
“So I went on and off and on interstate travel with thoughts of the German Autobahn with its unlimited speed limit (75 MPH allowed here), I opened the window, let the wind blow through my hair and imagined the Corvette of once upon a time. Not for long though, because all my papers and maps were blowing too!
“I stopped at the information station near Amarillo. A very nice girl gave me good advice, suggestion and help. I asked, “What about the cowboy who is inviting for the 72 ounce steak? All along the highways, like Wall Drug in the Dakotas.”
There apparently was a former ranch, who was side tracked when the interstate was built, so they made this honky tonk place with (in my opinion) tourists in mind (The Big Texan Ranch.) There is a long story about the guy who ‘ate the steak and all the trimmings in just one hour.’ Well, after she told me, ‘They even pick you up and bring you home,’ I had to see this for myself! First she gave me a coupon for the motel and then showed me the downtown area where the Route 66 history still lives and gave me a map of places I wanted to go.
“Is this Texas style? Room rate $36, plus tax with a King-size bed!
“At 7 p.m. I was picked up by a cowboy in a long, black limousine and driven to a place of really good food. They give you the tingling, lighting up thing (restaurant pager), you wait and they get you to your table. I was told my waiting time would be about 20 minutes, so I walked around, listened to the one man band (he had all kinds of instruments including a washboard, guitar, harmonica and more) and watched kids in the shooting gallery. When I leaned on a saddle, a boy said to me, ‘You don’t do it right, see you have to swing over!’ I laughed and told him, ‘I cannot do it anymore kid, now I have to sit like the ladies of the long gone times,” and that gave some laughs.
“My food was excellent! I ordered 2 appetizers: smoked ribs and mountain oysters and a glass of Texas Red Amber Ale. At 9:30 p.m. the limousine brought me back to the hotel, and that’s the end of the story.”
RT 66 9/29/14:
“Last day on the road! My $29 bed was so good that I did not wake up until 8:10 a.m. After breakfast, drove and stopped and photographed slowly through Tucumcari (N.M.). Then I took the frontage road, following the Route 66 signs. There were many cattle guards and the landscape has changed from the endless grass pampas of Texas to more mesas in New Mexico. The road had many dips and sometimes just gravel, but many flowers and even cactus alongside. On my right a railroad track with the longest line of freight trains and four engines waiting. Then I changed again to a long stretch of interstate. Isabella (her car) liked it–she was like a racehorse and we made some time.
“Along the way I took some pictures, but I feel maybe I never took the time to MAKE the pictures. Soon I arrived in Santa Rosa, where the marker tells you that the explorer Espejo passed through here in 1583.”
“I did make a stop at the famous stop for scuba diving in the desert, the Blue Hole. It is in the middle of town and I watched some swimmers jump in and some divers going down in the clear, wonderful blue water. A diver explained to me that it is fed by an underground river and that it is 80 feet deep, has a diameter of 60 feet, an outflow of about 3,000 gallons of water per minute and the water temp is 61 degrees at the top and bottom! The Blue Hole is such an amazing color blue, and I thought, sometimes the skies have the same color of this–almost turquoise blue, especially here in New Mexico.
“I drove until I could take the old 66 again near a once-upon-a-time Longhorn Ranch and drove on into my end station: Albuquerque at Moriarty. My last stop before was Clines Corner Cafe. Even though it said ‘Here since 1923’ it is nowadays a Subway, with a big souvenir store, where everything calls ‘Please buy me,’ I played deaf.
“Black clouds were hanging over the mesas and hills, soon the first drops came, but only for a short time a hefty rain shower just so that I had a fresh washed car to drive into a sunny town again. I followed the sign here and it must still be like the old times at night. Many neon signs, the old somehow revived, small hotels and inviting diners, looks a big funky, thought, here I would not like to be going alone at night….
The old, somehow revived. Beautiful.
She wrote, “To find the hotel, would have been easier to come in on the I-40, even at rush hour. After asking twice I found the Marriott and was greeted by photo friends right in the hall. I cannot believe, that only a week ago, I followed the blue and red foot steps in Pontiac (Il.)–and soon much lies in between!
“I had a great, sometimes a bit emotional, very rewarding trip, and thanked Isabella, too, that she was leading me safely to my destination. I will write the last letter when I am home in 14-20 days from now. (She is not driving home on Route 66) I had two great slide shows tonight, especially the Nature International, but I skipped the reception because I wanted to end the trip with you (her notes went out to other people besides me.)
“Anyway, America’s ‘Main Street’ was a history book with many pictures and chapters for me and I am thankful I could still do it as the ‘Grandmother of the Mother Road’ as Dave calls me.
Any doubts about the emotional power of Route 66 are cast to the wind when you read the road letters of my friend Ilse who is motoring west from the Great North Woods to a photo conference in Albuquerque, NM. Her words are butterflies, the modest car she calls Isabella is her net.
Ilse is 86 years old.
She has been to 140 countries. She is traveling Route 66 alone. (For details read the previous two posts on this site.) I asked her to stay in touch with us. Here is an essential take-away from her note of Thursday, Sept. 25—Ilse’s fifth day on the road. By then she had made it through Commerce, Ok., the birth place of Mickey Mantle.
“I realize I have to skip a few things, eight days to do it all is too short. But I love this road and stories she tells me—so I take my time and listen. Not ‘have been there—have done it’ no, I want to live it, be a page of the book.”
She gets it. This is exactly what happened to me when I traveled Route 66 in 1991. It was a time where I was moving too fast in my life. I, too was alone. Over my 12- day trip I learned how to become a better listener. I saw humility in dozens of small towns. I basked in warm neon sunsets and promising blue mornings.
A road so narrow can open so many minds.
Here’s edited versions of her two most recent letters from the road:
RT 66 9/25/14:
“On my map it always says ‘Scavenger Hunt’..then asks a question and one has to figure out something. Now YOU do: I stay in a “charming Route 66 Motel,” (as the book says), which I looked up last night–and I sure “found it” and….have a companion tonight..who could this be?? (tell you later!). I drive along the road who tells of cowboys, settlers, Indians, bootleggers and more!
“Breakfast in my room: from my care package yesterday; yogurt and a muffin, and my own energy chocolate drink. When I gave my key back, the first long conversation of this day with the owner: ‘You should go to our museum!. They have a nice collection, I worked on the switchboard at the telephone company, and they gave it to me long after I retired. They now have it in the museum. They had the motel since the seventies.’ After more stories I finally left with a big hug from her…of course it was too early for the museum.”
This seems to be a recurring theme for Ilse.
The early bird gets the worm, but not the museum.
“My first place to visit today were the fantastic caverns near Springfield, Mo. because a car drives through it. There are only four of them in the world: America, Slovakia, France and the fourth I forgot. (See! she didn’t even bottle to Google it.) A long time ago 12 women discovered it. It is huge and many singers and bands performed here (I would guess Ozark country-folk singers.) It might be the last cave I will see, don’t think I could walk them anymore.
“Remembered the Salt Caves in Poland (Ilse was born in the Black Forest of Germany and came to the United States in 1962) where we had to climb so many steps, and Nerja/Spain where we listened to classical music but walking through it for an hour.
“I drove around Springfield, so much traffic (Ilse does not like traffic) and I enjoyed the country road: rolling and winding, mostly empty, only for a while there were some farmers who were transporting their cows, who were holding me up a bit–they drove slowly on the small road, probably protecting their cows that they were not too much shaken and giving whipped cream instead of milk! It was so pastoral—-the many oak trees, the horses, the meadows.
“Yesterday was in and out of the car to take pictures here and there–today was even hotter than yesterday. Think of the people who came here in their wagons while I just turn on the air conditioner to feel more comfortable.
“So I lived into the day and was shocked when I realized it was Thursday already.
“I found this out in a hurry. A big sign: ‘This is the last Historic byways Route 66” by the border; then took it a while, till I found a little brown sign of Oklahoma. Followed it to Commerce, where I stopped for a milkshake, again in a converted Marathon station…and didn’t come out til almost an hour or more. Everywhere they want you to sign the guest book, telling that people from all over the world are visiting and they found out I came from Germany. He brought out a book from a photographer in Hamburg who had made some photos of the station, him and his mother. There were some cookies with the 66 sign on it, then the stories started, he has made the cutter, told me about the family, explained the Marathon sign, the civil war battles around here, President Truman and Bonny Clyde lived here, how they shot the policeman, so many more stories that time went by, of course I had the cookie and a big milk shake while listening, but now I HAVE to leave…
“Following the sign, did not come far after Miami (Ok., which has a nine foot wide section of the original “Ribbon Road”) and ended up on a dusty road, asked a farmer if I’m ‘right’, go on, after three miles it gets better…But somehow the direction seemed wrong, I took the next paved road to where the Interstate was, of course there was no entrance but a bridge over it, then just drove along a side road, the next village will come.
‘There were three old timers (remember Ilse is 86) sitting by the table in the gas station. Instead of asking the young girl on the cashier machine, I asked them. Two just informed me ‘so and so tollway’ til the third one said, ‘You just confuse the girl Take this road, make a cloverleaf over the bridge and stay on HW 60 and HW69, they are HW 66-drive safely girl.’ I followed him and came exactly out by the Buffalo Ranch (opened in 1958 which featured the world’s largest western wear store) where the charming Motel Route 66 (in Afton, Ok.) was.
“Rooms “with names” were available.
“I choose John Wayne–and now ‘Gute Nacht!”
RT 66 9/26/14
“Since I was so tired last night, I didn’t go out for dinner, instead right to bed; slept til about ten and then wrote my log. It was close to one a.m. until I went to sleep again, John Wayne watching me all the time from all the walls!
“Now I am hungry! I have chicken-fried steak, eggs, biscuits and gravy and the coffee tastes good. Right now it’s 6:30 a.m. and the sun is still “down”–only making pink clouds. The Buffalo Ranch still blinking colorful lights….
“The landscape has changed, flat and many herds of cows and bulls grazing in the morning fog, and even a chicken running over the road. A reminder of my youth! I drove along some ghost (abandoned) stations and motels, too dark to photograph. In Vanita, Ok. I saw this broken sign EAT and stopped, had the best breakfast (again?) ate half and the waitress packed for me too. Clanton’s Cafe owned by the same family since 1927! The best hash browns–I was ready for the road again.
“In Claremore (Ok.) spent a long time at the Will Rogers Museum. Highlight of the day, but really not enough time. Very nice displays and I remembered the cattle drive in Montana and me unsuccessfully trying to rope a wooden horse. Amazing how many tricks Rogers had! Along the road, near a little pond was the concrete blue whale. I think maybe a forerunner of the fancy art slides of the Dells. He has a big smile and a baseball cap on top.”
As does my friend Ilse. She is living in the moment as the moments come to her.
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Route 66 is one of America’s most historic common denominators, but because of the road’s accessible depth each traveler sees it in a different light. My friend Ilse has set foot in all seven continents and 140 countries but she had never traveled the Mother Road until this week.
Ilse is 86 years young.
The German-born roadie is driving alone in her “Isabella,” a camel-colored Hunday that is named after the Queen of Spain. Ilse has attended a couple of National Hobo Conventions in Iowa where fellow hobos crowned her “The Great Northern Gypsy.”
I’ve shared a few road tips with the gypsy and asked her to stay in touch.
Here is Ilse’s first couple of observational letters from Route 66. The notes have been edited by her daughter Christine. The family does not want me to use their last name. I’ve thrown a few comments in for good measure.
RT 66 9.22.14.
“Started in Dwight and spent a perfect photo-light late afternoon in Pontiac and there were over 200 Pontiac cars here over the weekend! (I still drive my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire!) I did not drive too many miles, only from Pontiac to Springfield, Ill.
Ilse elected to bypass the intensity of Chicago.
“Last evening I saw some red and blue foot steps—this morning I took them and ended up by “swinging bridges”–three of them over a little brook full of ducks. Later I ended up in the Route 66 Hall of Fame, which is in an old historic firehouse.” Ilse, this will be the first of several Route 66 museums on your eight-day trip to way to the 76th conference of the Photographic Society of America in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I enjoyed looking over the VW Bus of Bob Waldmire, an artist who did a lot for Route 66 and had a wonderful drawing from beginning to end, a card for each state, took pictures of his “Road Yacht”–a school bus he remodeled as his home.”
Never let ego get in the way of the possibilities of travel. Only when you blend can you bend.
In November, 2009 I visited Bob in downstate Rochester, Ill. as he lay dying on a futon on his bus. I brought him a sandwich from the Dixie Truck Stop up the road on Route 66.
I later had a dust-up with a Chicago newspaper editor who insisted that Route 66 had nothing to do with Chicago, even though the route starts in Chicago. Keep an open mind.
Route 66 always gets framed by nostalgia, but the spiritual essence of the road is the promise of what is in front of us.
“There are more stories,” Ilse wrote, not even out of central Illinois. “I also stopped at the Strevell House. Jason W. Strevell was visiting there and prredicted that he would be nominated in January 1860–there is a “Lincoln Trail” which would be interesting to follow. “I missed the log cabin (? restaurant in Pontiac maybe?) but went to the southerly diction to Lexington and Towanda. I first stopped at an old graveyard and the other had about a mile and a half trail along the old, cracked and full of weeds Mother Road–in the beginning, they had painted the whole length of it and further there were all 8 states with pictures and explanations.
“Then I found a nice place to rest. I hope I get the picture I took with the iPad. Yes, there are still rusted out and abandonend places. An old ice-cream cone still recognizable and I hear the echoes of children asking, ‘Can I have one?’ I have the road practically to myself and am only separated by a short strip of grass and wire, with the many cars swishing by on I-55.
“Drove through Bloomington, but did not stop, just saw the sign, and after the heavy traffic , I took a side road through sunlit green quiet woods. I hoped to have lunch in Atlanta and the recommended (by me) Palms Cafe, but they are closed on Monday (sorry Ilse) and so was the museum. Across the street, there was only an antique dealer open, so I drove the couple miles back to the Dixie place (est. 1928, the oldest truck stop in America) and had a trucker’s lunch there.”
How great is that?
Rt. 66 9/23/14
“Excuse the lengthy letters, but instead of making notes in my log book, I put everything in the computer and write up my story when home—
“Early rise, but a late start and there was so much again today. There are about three “Old Rt. 66″ signs around: 1928-30, 1930-40 and 1940-70 and you need a map. On the other hand, it’s harvest time, and big machines were working–left and right were huge corn fields. Nothing but sky and fields and me.”
“Stopped for a longer time in Carlinville, a nice town with “Sears Roebuck mail order houses” (My Mom, born 1921, grew up in one of these Carlinville homes) and the only roundabout on Rt. 66 where once has to drive around the gazebo on the square! An interesting jail, where once a man broke out–had a beer-and walked through the door to be jailed up again. Believe it…or not stories!”
Ilse told me she is a Willie Nelson fan.
I would get this story to him.
“Also a great court house,” she wrote. “All these places have nice 66 descriptive signs.”
“Now comes the second adventure–looking for the Madonna, or “Our Lady of the Highways Shrine”–my only clue was (Dave’s) and Waggoner–exit 72–since coming from Carlinville took HW 106 over to Raymond and let Miss Garmin take over. (Editor’s note–Christine and I think that Miss Garmin is Ilse’s GPS.) Then stopped and asked in Waggoner and I must have passed her, without seeing her –imagined her in a wood cove, not in front of a farm house.
“Then I saw a Pleasant Hill Church and thought the shrine might be in their garden–‘come,’ said the Minister. “I will take you to her,” and drove all the way back, where I just came from: “You stand by her side and I take your picture, then you can have her with you…” Then he pointed out the “Hail Mary…” Staggered up like the Burma Shave signs along the brown cornfield.”
“After all this, I was ready for a hot dog in the Ariston in Litchfield, expecting a diner, instead I was led by an older gentleman to a booth and the table with linen napkins. Don’t know if it was the owner, but he was happy to greet me with “Guten Tag–do you want a brandy?’ I said, ‘I’m driving and only have water.’ Instead of hot dogs, I ordered Greek chicken liver. When I left the waiter brought me some tokens from the establishment to remember the place.”
“What an interesting day again, talked to bikers and a couple in a convertible. Sometimes you have the street all for yourself, then you are involved in conversations and “where are you from?”
We are everywhere. Past and present. Here it is.
Here’s a few tips for Ilse from my Facebook friends:
Michael Kandel: When she gets to sunset blvd there is a great burrito place on the corner Alvarado in echo park at the car wash there.
The Jack Rabbit Trading Post, Route 66, Joseph City Az., 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)
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