From the monthly archives: "January 2011"

Jan. 25, 2011—

The large antique mall in the northern shadow of Milwaukee’s four-sided Allen-Bradley clock was filled with people. It made Frankie Snuggs uneasy.
His space was being invaded. These were his memories: the Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass LPs you always find in thrift stores, the postcard of a one level Holiday Inn in Key Largo where he recalled a sunset version of “Come Monday,” the irony of a paisley shirt from the 1970s.

Time stands still for Frankie Snuggs.

He still wears paisley shirts. For real.

But even the four-sided clock had changed on him. Up until last summer Milwaukee’s “Polish Moon” had been the tallest four-sided clock in the world. It lost its title to some new tower in Saudi Arabia, of all places.

“Not even Chicago,” Frankie thought. He thought about all this on the drive over to the three-story mall in an old factory. He reflected while driving, especially when listening to music. Frankie didn’t care for talk radio because it made him think too much. He heard someone talk about the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times where a divorced woman wrote about how her ex-husband is still the person she wants to come home to, tell her stories to and share her life with. This made him think sad.

Frankie turned to sports talk but everyone was talking loud about the Bears and the Packers. “Never used to be this way,” he mumbled. “Hyper-bolee used to follow the action instead of dictate the action.”

Frankie went to Groppi’s Food Market for sustenance. The small market has been in the same Bayview neighborhood south of the four-sided clock since 1946.
Maybe the intimacy of the supermarket is what Frankie was missing. Strangers looked him in the eye.
He purchased a fresh cinnamon scone with big juicy raisins. He bought some whipped cream for the Key Lime pie that has been in his freezer since New Year’s Day.
Maybe the mall would have been less crowded had he not spent so much time daydreaming at Groppi’s. As Frankie grew older he found himself making second guesses like that.
Gus is Frankie’s best friend and oldest friend. On the recent occasion of Gus’s birthday he laid out options that Frankie had already been contemplating.

“You can be crazy the rest of your life or you can settle down,” Gus said.
Frankie was quiet. Craziness grows in the fields of solitude.

He scratched his head then asked, “What’s the difference between crazy and courage?”

A large man with fuzzy Dickens sideburns and a large woman wearing a floppy red smock had pulled up small chairs to the mall’s postcard collection that Frankie liked on previous visits. People strolled by as wandering souls searching for past connections.

The couple was settled in. Their coats were off and it looked as if they were not going to leave any time soon. In back and forth harmony they picked out obnxious cards of cupids, flowers and pretty birds. It took them a lot of time. Frankie thought, “There’s postcards of Mexico, Holland, New York and Henry Aaron and they’re excited about this?”

The middle age guy found a yellowed postcard of a cherub with an arrow. Frankie was embarrassed to look at the card. He guessed they were shopping for Valentine’s Day.
“I think we have this one,” the sideburns guy told the large woman. The woman confirmed his belief as she had done for so many years and they returned to thumbing through postcards. These two were on a mission. The rhythm of flipping cardboard clicked like a train pullling out of a station.
Frankie only bought a couple of postcards.

His best purchase of the day was a tattered copy of “Quick,” a small news magazine from June 5, 1950. “Its about the size of an 8-track tape,” Frankie pointed out to a passerby. He thought the retro-reference made sense. The short articles in Quick” caught his eye.

They were snapshots of the future:

EDUCATION:
“The largest (500,000) graduating class in U.S. history began to pour from college campuses. The Labor Dept. said job chances are good in the fields of nursing, grade-school teaching, medicine, social work; not so good in engineering, law, journalism, personnel work.”

FOOD:
“Babies seemed to enjoy a new banana-flavored macaroni product, quick-cooking pastina (Prince Co.’s small beads of macroni), top serve with butter and/or milk as an easy-on-mother lunch or supper dish. Variations: beet, carrot, spinach pastina.”

“Quick” was 1950’s Twitter with common sense.

Frankie paid $2 for what was basically a 64-page pamphlet. The great thing about the mall is that the staff places a purchase—as small as the issue of “Quick”— on a freight elevator and dispatches it from the third floor to the check out counter on the first floor.

Frankie’s trip ended with a bottle of Point beer at the Palm Tavern, a tiny dive bar in the Bayview neighborhood. It wasn’t Frankie’s idea to meet at the Palm but the atmosphere turned out to be perfect for him. The walls were filled with framed sheet music of 1960s soul stars like Jerry Butler and plaster female breasts adorned the south wall.

The bartender knew of the long-gone Mean Mountain Music down the road, a vinyl emporium run by some rockabilly cats who had a hidden section of X-rated ’45s and Klan singles on the REBEL label out of Crowley, La.

His friend Jennifer Eckles suggested the Palm.
He had last seen Jennifer in mid-summer when she started dating a guy who worked at the grocery store across from her apartment in North Milwaukee. When he walked into the Palm just last week she said, “Meet my fiance,” and she laughed. “I never thought I’d get married.” Jennifer is 28 or 29, younger than Frankie.

Frankie sensed the couple’s simpatcio and was happy for them. He also liked the fact that her fiance had a 90 pound dog named Reba.

It was time to leave.
Frankie walked across a snow drift as Jennifer and her boyfriend walked across the street to another bar. “Wish you all the best,” Frankie shouted.

He got in his car and saw the four-sided clock in the rear view mirror.
He wondered when he last sent anyone a postcard.

Midge.

Jan. 13, 2011—

The Old Town Ale House was not a happy bar when I drank there.

It is in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago, just a lucky weave and blind step south of the Second City theater.

I haven’t been there in a couple years, but the last time I was at the Ale House it had been discovered by a new generation of late night revelvers. I was not happy.

The Ale House is open until 5 a.m. on Sunday and 4 a.m. the rest of the week. It has always been a lighthouse for just-off-the-shift bartenders and waitstaff, miserable deadline reporters and Second City actors trying to bottle their adrenaline.

As we drove by the Ale House during last fall’s tour with Hugh Hefner and his twin sons I pointed out the tavern with its rustic Wild West exterior. I told Hef’s sons how actor-comedian Chris Farley dropped in the bar on his last night on this mortal coil. They perked up.

Back when I was hanging out at the Ale House in the early 1990s I was in the jet stream of a divorce. This was a perfect landscape for me. Most people had worse problems. The jukebox played blue songs like Rosemary Clooney’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham.”

The place was full of colorful regulars in a black and white world.
One guy walked around with a nickel in his ear. People had sex in the bathroom. One woman had appeared on the Tom Snyder show for some sexual diversion.

The late Bobby Freitag was piano player at Orso’s Italian restaurant and a man who loved playing the role of the curmudgeon. He’s one of the few lounge singers I knew who never sang. He had a great joke about his singing: “They heard me once. I had a little too much to drink and started singing.”

“They said, ‘Don’t do it again, please.’

“I thought they meant the drinking.”

Freitag would give me the finger from his gnarled left hand when I walked into the Ale House. Then he would ask me to sit down on his right side.

Bob Freitag (with bubble blower).

Even the tavern’s east wall had depressing stories.
Between 1972 and 1974 Chicago artist Maureen Munson painted faces of Ale House hustlers, bards, junkies and porn stars on the wall. There were fantasy CIA agents and AIDS victims. I was told the wall contained three suicides. One of the suicides always carried a parrot on his shoulder. Munson liked to drink beer and whiskey.
No one knew what became of her.

Tiny Bubbles (Munson on mural above right)

Late one night we decided to march through the Ale House with a small red bottle of
blow bubbles (with wand) and a Polaroid camera.
I don’t recall how this happened, it might have been Midge’s idea. We wanted to lighten up the mood of these soggy barnacles.

We approached the dark characters with the bright plastic bottle. We asked them to take the wand and blow a bubble into the camera. Guess what?
Everyone participated. Everyone smiled. Even Freitag.

Az; singer-songwriter-big bubble blower.

This sealed the deal with the Polaroid camera for me.
I’ve never strayed too far away from tactile experiences. The Polaroid is a process for sure. I still love the smell of a newspaper and turning its pages. I enjoy taking a slab of black vinyl out of a record jacket and placing it on a turntable. It creates a connection that seems to be floating away in this A.D.D. culture.

This past New Year’s Eve at the Empty Bottle music club in Chicago a twentysomething woman took our picture with a new Polaroid camera. I was impressed. She showed her friends how this contraption spewed out a photo on the spot.

It was the second time this Polarid portrait had happened the last three New Year’s Eves. It hasn’t happened any other time of the year.

We talked briefly about Polaroids and how to track down Polaroid film. I had loaded up my Polaroid One Step with 600 film—although I have yet to snap any photos. I didn’t even know that Polaroid was no longer making film and that the Impossible Project in the Netherlands had acquired original Polaroid machinery.

It just seems that the cumbersome geekery of the Polaroid always makes folks smile.

I’m happy about these developments.

Jan. 11, 2011—

There is a corner bar at the end of the block on the street where I live.
The classic Chicago workingman’s tavern has been there since 1943. Polka legend Lil’ Wally played “I Like Her Golabka” and “Polish Polka Twist” at this bar during the late 50s and early ’60s.

I have been there twice in recent weeks. The bar is on a one-way street and I walk the other way. During the summer I hear Mexican rancheros spilling out from the windows of brick three-flats. The bar has a good CD jukebox with Merle Haggard, the Ramones and a fuzzy sound system. I like the songs although I don’t need to hear “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for the rest of my life.

On the night we kissed goodbye there wasn’t much else going on besides cheap tequila. Maybe it was a few days before New Year’s Eve. I had never seen the one-eyed dog with big black and white spots that belonged on a Holstein cow. The dog ran up to everyone and underneath the pool table. A woman in crutches had her right foot wrapped in a plastic bag.

And there was Elvis, the neighborhood guy who mops up the place and picks up empty Hamm’s beer cans. He is deaf and he is mute. Elvis is his real name. Sometimes he is dirty with grit on his face. But he grins.

He’s always at the bar on the one-way street.

The next visit I was alone on the night of the Tucson, Az. shootings. The bar was packed. Maybe 75 people. A woman was having her 30th birthday party.
About half the people in the bar were texting or checking messages on cell phones. I still don’t get this. I go to a bar to get away from things.

I considered the old men who once frequented this place. They talked to shadows. Their hearts were like quarters tumbling into broken parking meters. After a few shots of Polish vodka with bison grass perhaps they talked to each other or the bartender who is everyone’s friend.
We don’t talk as much as we used to—at least face to face.

Elvis came in late that night with a soggy hoodie over his jet black hair. He seemed happy. I’ve never seen Elvis with a cell phone. I’ve seen him applaud at a good play in a football game on the bar’s big screen television. On that night of cheap tequila he attempted to tell us about the one-eyed dog in fast sign language.

I’ve felt his pat on the back when I’m sitting at the bar, across from the tavern’s 1922 button cash register. I feel I know him better than some of the people I work with.

We’re distracted. Like the Tube in London, the growing social network is a linear tunnel with sparks of words, ideas, love and hate being spewed out with little regard for reflection. Catch what you can. Discourse doesn’t stop here.

We don’t have time to understand the music from a neighbor’s weatherbeaten windowsill, send a picture postcard on a whim or absorb the oral histories of a bar that has Chicago liquor license No. 177. I’ve been guilty as charged.

The railroad workers and mechanics who listened to polka music at the corner bar knew how to offer a hand to people that have slipped between life’s cracks. They were more aware of what went on around them. They were good listeners. Some hitchiking souls were long time neighbors.

A bright smile can emerge from a soot-stained face. Can we make the effort to return the gesture with a thoughtful nod? I’m trying.

Maybe its the first step on a one-way street in making this world a better place.

 

Congress Theater, Chicago, Jan. 1, 2011 (Photo by Diane Soubly)

Jan. 4, 2011— One moment was lost in the storm of Chuck Berry’s collapse during his New Year’s night concert at the Congress Theater in Chicago.

About halfway through the show a thin and somewhat wobbly Berry approached the front of the stage of the dank 85-year-old theater. Berry stood alone. He did not know his band. He hadn’t been to Chicago in years. He was out of the shadows.

Berry began to recite a prose poem about winter. It was difficult to decipher all the words from my perch in the steamy first balcony. I’ve seen Berry several times, including his home base of the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, but I have never heard him read poetry. The moment had the bittersweet nature of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Here was Berry, like King Lear, shadow boxing destiny and searching for empathy in the winter of his life.

Berry apologized to Chicago fans at the end of the night. He also apologized to fans at B.B. King’s in New York, according to reports on Rolling Stone.com. This is unlike the cantankerous Berry profiled in books and snippets of the 1987 Taylor Hackford documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll.”

Were you there the night the audacious, bold, crazy and moody Chuck Berry asked for forgiveness?

I have always ranked Berry with Frederick Seidel, Bob Dylan and Langston Hughes as the greatest 20th Century American poets. Berry wrote with economical, playful rhythms that blew like streamers out of America’s post-World War II boom of airplane, car and television culture.

I told him this face-to-face last January during a rare backstage interview at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. Berry answered in clear meters.

With straight-ahead eyes that twinkled in the twilight, Berry said, “Diction is respect. I learned that from Nat King Cole and Louis Jordan. Even if you can’t hear the beat, the words will get you where you want. Its like poetry.” (Full story here under the MUSIC category).

After the Congress show, Blueberry Hill owner/Berry confidant Joe Edwards told me that Berry had a couple of “spoken word” pieces for his highly anticpated album that has been in the works for seven years.

Berry closes out the end of his 1987 “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography” [Harmony Books] with three pages of poems. And, in a precious extra of the “Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll” DVD package Berry recites “Even This Too Shall Pass,” the tender 1904 poem by newspaper editor-abolitionist Theodre Tilton. He died three years after writing the poem.

In footage not used in the theatrical release, Berry’s reading is accompanied by Robbie Robertson thumb picking on acoustic guitar. The footage was shot in Robertson’s Los Angeles home which Berry playfully observed was on “the only circular acre lot in L.A.”

Taking only a bit of liberty with the original words, Chuck Berry recites:

Standing in the public square, thirteen meters in the air

Rose his statue carved in stone, as the king stood there unknown

Gazing at his sculptured name, he said to himself, so what is fame?

Fame is but a slow decay; even that will pass away.

And then…..

Struck with cancer, sore and old; lying at the Gates of Gold

Speak he with his dying breath, life is gone, so what is death?

Then, in answer to the king (here Berry drops his head while Robertson plays)

Fell a sun beam on his ring… even I shall pass away.”

(It should be noted Tilton’s original poem ended with “…even this shall pass away.”)

Berry tells Robertson how, musically he always felt the mood of his lyrics. And that “two words with four syllables, you gotta’ say them (eight) to the bar.” That’s rock n’ roll.

Chuck Berry is the king of rock and roll.

And deeper than people will ever know.