From the monthly archives: "March 2011"

March 29, 2011—

I’m approaching my 39th consecutive Cubs opener.

Opening Day is a chance to forget about the apathy of Lou Piniella and the narcolepsy of Bobby Murcer—-the last Cub I booed mercilessly.
On Opening Day I can still smell the fervid bleacher cigars of the early 1970s and touch the gritty newspapers people brought to the game. On Opening Day I see my father’s healthy legs leading me through the grandstands to see Hank Aaron. On Opening Day I see my unborn children. In Cubs hats.

Opening Day is the real chance to turn the page.

Buy new sheets. Send someone yellow flowers on a chance. It’s a grand day to renew distant friendships like Charley Krebs.

Charley is a Chicago area artist who sent me this Opening Day message a couple of days ago. We’ve bumped into each other listening to roadhouse music at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.

Charley’s  first paying job was drawing for a Cook County police union magazine. Soon, afterwards, and right out of Morton College, he was hired as editorial cartoonist for the Cicero-Berwyn LIFE Newspaper and The Suburban LIFE Newspaers. (Check out his work at

Opening Day is time to ponder negative forces, Charlie Sheen rants and weird
Facebook dudes who post their topless pictures. Outta here, just like when my friend Steve Lord and I had our “FIRE FRANKS!” bed sheet banner confiscated from the bleachers in protest of Cubs manager Herman Franks. We were on to something. Franks was replaced in late 1979 by the not-so-immortal Joe Amalfianto, a third base coach lifer who was sort of the Mike Quade of his era.

Opening Day is a hearty handshake with Sec. 242 usher Simon the Magnificent for making it through another winter. Opening Day is a moment of personal silence for Stephanie Leathers, Ron Santo and the other beloved members of Cubdom who have left this mortal coil since the last Opening Day.
White Sox fans are beautiful on Opening Day.

Opening Day is seeing Mike & Hope walk down the aisle of Section 242, where the sun always shines. Is there any better name for a Cubs fan than Hope? Opening Day is teaching your girl friend how to score.

There are many Opening Day memories, mostly revolving the said Steve Lord; the time when Opening Day turned into Opening Night with last  call dancing to the Ramones at the punk club O’Banion’s, 661 N. Clark St.
Or when I bet Steve an Old Style ($1.00 for a large)  for every inning past three the then-washed up Cubs-former Montreal Expo Woodie Fryman would throw on Opening Day 1978. He had a no-hitter for 5 2/3 innings until the Pirates’ Dave Parker broke it up with a double. (The Cubs won 5-4 on a walk off homer run by Bill Buckner). I’m looking at my scorecard now and thinking that might have been the year we ended up at O’Banion’s,

Woodie died over the winter. He was 70 years old.

Spring moves faster than the other seasons.

Opening Day is about the return of Vienna franks, missing from Wrigley Field since 1982. Opening Day is about Bob Beck, seeing things we all have missed. I think Bob (the owner and founder of Beck’s Books) turns 90 this year. Bob saw his first Cubs game in 1929.
Every Opening Day you see some of the most memorable opening day pitches of the past; from a frail Walter Payton to the beloved Bill Murray chucking the ball into the grandstands. Opening Day is about following a smiling Bill Veeck from Murphy’s Bleachers into the center field bleachers.
Opening Day is brown ivy and blue skies. Green parkas and leather gloves.
Opening Day reminds me that retired Bleacher Bum Mike Murphy should be on  Chicago radio—somewhere. And Mike the Cop’s unbridled Cubs optimism only matches the dreams for his family.

This Opening Day marks Freddie Speck’s 20th annual Opening Day brunch n’ beer n’ brats at Guthrie’s, just  west of the ballpark. Freddie’s Hawaiian shirt is another sign of Opening Day as is his delirious smile. Speaking of that, its good to see Ronnie Wickers on  Opening Day.
Opening Day 1969 is remembering  “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” through a tinny gray transistor radio. Opening Day is about accepting the warmth of possiblity.
Anything can happen.

March 19, 2011—

When I talk to aspiring writers-journalists I make sure to mention Joseph Mitchell.  He was a long time staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He made every word count.
His style was that of a calypso breeze.

Mitchell, who died in 1996 at the age of 88, was born on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. He dropped out of the University of North Carolina to become a journalist in New York City. He wrote about carnies, gypsies, strippers, vagabonds, drunks and oddballs in the side pocket. He illuminated the hearts who beat in dark shadows.

Its the kind of world  today’s newspapers discourage writers from pursuing.
I’ve given several writers copies of the Mitchell anthology “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” [Pantheon Books, 2001.] After reading Mitchell, you remember the value of economy. Pacing. Respect for your subject.

Mitchell used Harlem singer Wilmoth “The Calypso King of New York” Houdini as a window into the nascent late 1930s  calypso scene. Houdini wrote calypsos like “I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones.”

As part of Joe “The Mighty Stylus” Bryl’s “Global Soul” series I’ll be spinning calypso and soca music at 8 p.m. March 23 at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, 960 W. 31st. St. ( on the mid-south side of Chicago. Its tropical down there.  Maria’s is the kind of behind-a-liquor store bar you would find in a Mitchell essay. The place features 300 magical brands of beer.

Mitchell wrote the essay “Houdini’s Picnic” in 1939. It is on page 253 of “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.” Few Americans had heard of calypso in 1939. Readers love discovery. Readers are turned off by things they already know.

Here is part of Mitchell’s set up on the calypso singer:
With guitars slung under their arms, they hang out in rum shops and Chinese cafes on Marine Square and Frederick Street in Port-of-Spain, the principal city of Trinidad, hunting for gossip around which they can construct a Calypso. Several brag truthfully that women fight to support them. Most of them are veterans of the island jails. To set themselves apart from lesser men, they do not use their legal names but live and sing under such adopted titles as the Growler, the Lord Executor, King Radio…..”

That’s minimalist drama.

By 1945 the Andrews Sisters covered Lord Invader and Lionel Belasco’s “Rum and Coca-Cola” (featured on the new Wanda Jackson album) which sold 4 million copies. Comic/future Dick Van Dyke star Morey Amsterdam ripped off the song copyright in 1943 when he rolled through Trinidad on a USO tour. The songwriters sued and won $150,000 in back royalties, but Amsterdam also retained copyright.

It makes sense that Mitchell would be drawn to calypsonians. They, too are journalists. They report stories from the streets and do not shy away from social commentary. This is why during the cold war 1950s political minds from Harry Belafonte to Louis Farrakhan found a place as hot, hot, hot calypso singers.
Farrakhan recorded under the name “The Charmer.” A dozen of his recordings can be found on “The Charmer, Calypso Favorites 1953-54” on the Monogram label. Farrakhan came to Chicago from the east coast in 1955 to appear in “The Calypso Follies” revue at the Blue Angel nightclub.

Besides a schoolboy heart, Jimmy Buffett has a calypsonian’s heart. He began his career as a journalist for Billboard magazine in Nashville. He blended the calypso soul of Belafonte with country pop to become the island empire that he is today. [Buffett band member Robert Greenidge is a master steel drummer from Trinidad who also soloed on John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album.]

On Wednesday I’ll bring the best of my calypso vinyl collection including Lord Invader, Duke Of Iron, Mighty Sparrow and Calypso Rose. I’ll throw in Col. Sanders’ “Tijuana Picnic” just to piss people off. And I won’t forget the faster and more dense soca (which traditional calypsonians despise—think Dylan going electric) of Machel Montano and I just dug up the calypso CD from actor Robert Mitchum where he sings “They Dance All Night.”
If prompted, maybe I’ll read some Joseph Mitchell. And take my time.

   March 16, 2011—

   TEMPE, Az.—-Spring Training is about refreshing fundamentals: bunting, throwing, base running,  the things I didn’t see the Cubs do in Tuesday’s loss to Colorado.

   It’s not about being a slammer.

   I discovered The Slammer weekly newspaper ( in February at a Mesa gas station as I was touring Arizona Spring Training parks. I’m safe in my hotel room tonight writing this so I don’t end up in The Slammer.

    The Slammer is a 20-page newspaper featuring hundreds of mug shots. For a buck I picked  up the Maricopa County, Arizona edition of The Slammer.

   This is one item you don’t want to shoplift.

   The mug shots are divided into categories, mostly “Recent Arrests.” But the specialty categories are what hooked me: “Hairdos & Don’ts,” fight victims in “Sluggin & Muggin’,” “Wrinkly Rascals” (old criminals) and perhaps my favorite, busted (and mostly young people) smiling in “Laugh It Up.”

    The Slammer also has short crime columns like “This Weekend In History” and “Cold Case.”  A few weeks ago I also saw a Nashville, Tn. edition of The Slammer.  That had many of the same columns as the Arizona edition, although they have missed the boat with “Jailhouse Rockers” that could include vintage photos of David Allen Coe, Johnny Paycheck and the great Steve Earle.

    I love all their music.

    Maybe it’s a matter of time before The Slammer comes to Chicago. I’d like to see a start-up in Naperville or Wilmette just to see residents get upset and try to put a hammer to The Slammer.

    The Slammer has a mast head  and the Feb. 2-9 issue I picked up was Vol. 3, No. 5. The Slammer is published by CorMedia, LLC in Raleigh, N.C.

    The Chicago Tribune used to have an American flag along the top of its front page.

    The Slammer has a pair of handcuffs

    The Slammer reminds me of my old friend Ben Thomas in St. Louis, Mo. Whenever visiting St. Louis in the 1980s I would pick up a copy of his “Evening Whirl” crime newspaper that was popular in the black community. Thomas had crime categories like “The Hooch Hound Club” and “The Gun Club,” which was colorful rewrites of firearm arrests.

     Thomas set his headlines in free styling caps: SLAIN IN CAR, DUMPED IN ALLEY.

THIS IS NOT BEN THOMAS, but a Slammer candidate for sure. Earlier this month he was getting a haircut at an apartment in Stamford, Conn. when he grabbed a pair of scissors and SLASHED another man. He’s 21 and he was agitated. I had to use this mug,

    The Evening Whirl was also a weekly.  Thomas started the broadsheet in 1938 as “The Night Whirl” which he passed around at St. Louis nightclubs. He thought nightlife was a “whirl.” There are no “whirls” in the slammer.

      Thomas was a one-man show when I met him in 1984 while visiting St. Louis for an important Cubs-Cards series. He told me he put in about 18 hours a day at the Evening Whirl, but he worked out of a tiny storefront and never seemed to have made a lot of money.

     Crime does not pay.




MARCH 6, 2011—

There are no medals for Chicago soul singers.
The emotive gospel based music has always been shot down by the city’s blues scene.

Someone was tellling me the other day about Bono’s choice cover Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” at a U2 concert in Chicago and asked the audience to sing along. I was told he was met mostly with a collective “Huh?”

Last night Lou Pride stood tall on the stage of the American Legion Hall Post 42 in Evanston, Ill.
Pride is a locally overlooked 61-year-old soul singer who lives in north suburban Waukegan. He was appearing as part of the Bluegrass & Legends series held periodically at the roadhouse hall (ask about the commander’s raffle) in the shadow of the El tracks.
I had to check this out.

Pride sings with the playful grit of Clarence Carter, the curling, jazzy sway of Bobby “Blue” Bland and when he takes his falsetto out for a test drive he pays homage to his mentor Curtis Mayfield. In 1990 Pride  recorded “Gone Bad Again” for Mayfield’s Curtom imprint.

Curtis Mayfield: American Treasure.

Pride delivered a dynamic 90-minute set fronting a four-piece band with one background singer. Wearing a natty pin striped suit, he sang while facing a World War II flag and a Korean War flag, 1950-53.
I sat by a dead fireplace named “Buddy.”
To get to the main hall the audience walked up a staircase that featured a mural of a sinking World War II fighter ship.

The soul show in American shadows was booked by bluegrass fan Chip Covington, who between 1978 and 1982 owned the popular Biddy Mulligan’s music club in Rogers Park. He’s been booking bluegrass in and out of the American Legion hall for the last 12 years. (Town Mountain comes to town on April 9,

Covington sold Biddy’s to a great family from India who continued to book blues music in a club with an Irish name.
Biddy’s is also where I once bought a shot of Jack Daniel’s for Keith Richards who was watching the Neville Brothers while Chuck Berry was video taping the whole thing.

  Things were a bit more tame last night. Pride (no relation to country singer Charley) covered original ballads like “I Had a Talk With My Baby,” and the hard Memphis groove of “Bringin’ Me Back Home” of which snippets were used in the 2007 Morgan Freeman film “Feast of Love.”

But the band hit full fire with  “Chitlin’ Circuit” music, the mash-up of soul, country, gospel and good humor. With the foreboding beady eyes of Howlin’ Wolf, Pride free-styled rhymed with “yippie-a-yippe-yo, bow wow wow” in “Beware of the Dog” and the best call of the night was found in the deep groove of “Twistin’ The Knife.”
Pride gave a shout out to his late songwriter Bob Greenlee, who besides “Twistin’ the Knife” co-wrote “Long Arm of the Blues” and “Love From a Stone” for Pride.

Greenlee’s story is as compelling as a soul singer performing in an American Legion hall normally featuring bluegrass music.
Greenlee was a Chicago native who moved to the Daytona Beach, Fla. area in the 1960s. A bassist for the Midnight Creepers, he meshed soul with a melodic surf sound. Besides Pride, artists who were around central Florida during this period included vocalist Floyd Miles and Duane and Gregg Allman. They gigged at beach joints like The Bikini Room and the Wedge. Greenlee was also captain of the Yale football team and a 4th round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins in 1967. Greenlee went on to create King Snake Records and collaborated with the late Root Boy Slim.

Pride brought a warm dash of the surf-soul into his gospel-soul template. The interplay between Pride and keyboardist Ron Kovach was straight out of church. Pride grew up singing in the choir of the First Baptist Church in Chicago. The church was pastored by the Rev. E.J. Cole, the father of singer Nat King Cole.

Chicago gospel has always been from the heart and has maintained a direct connection with traditional influences that reflected the Southern migration (Mahalia Jackson from New Orleans, the Staple Singers from Mississippi, etc.)

Pride’s band also included singer Cathy Charity, rock-blues guitarist Paul Stilin, bassist Dwane Denton and drummer Ivory Harris. Denton and Harris also play in the Waukegan smooth jazz group High Altitude. I’m down with that. With all the deep soul twists I figured Pride normally has a horn section.

Pride told the audience of about 150 people that he had just returned from a festival in Europe, where the “Northern Soul” that is emblematic of Pride’s music is much more popular than in Chicago.

“We played for 5,000 people in Switzerland,” he said. “We’re doing the same show for you that we did for them.”

But this gig was truly memorable.

Hambone, the host of Hambone’s Blues Party (10 p.m. Thursdays on WDCB 90.9-FM; was passing out cans of Miller High Life beer. College age kids danced in the back of the hall, near the soundboard. Former Chicago Blues Festival coordinator Barry Dolins relaxed on a piano bench. A handful of American Legion vets sat with their wives on metal folding chairs.

And although Buddy the fireplace was dark, my soul had been warmed.

FOR MORE on Chicago soul such as Alvin “Twine Time” Cash, Otis Clay, Curtis Mayfield, The Staple Singers and  others please check out the MUSIC archives of this website.


The Red Lips at La Manigua Botanic Garden, Colombia.

They are used to make a poison—watch out. (Courtesy of Pilar Quintana)

MARCH 5, 2011——
The mirror in the hotel bathroom tells the truth.
Who is that old piece of bark? Why are there dark rings of time under those eyes?

Almost all hotel bathroom mirrors are washed over with bright light. It creates an in your-face effect you don’t get at home. Sometimes it may be the luster of a clean loo, other times it could be the magical distance from a known place.

In the mid-1980s I stayed at the Covent Hotel, a men’s only pay-by-the-week flophouse near Lincoln Park in Chicago. I have seen cypress trees made bare by lightning. These guys were like that.

The whole place smelled like mothballs. We had community bathrooms and those places were really dark. I spent more time in the mirror watching out for creepers moving around in unfortunate shadows.

Is that mole under that lip cancerous?
There’s a scar from a broken play in a distant football game where you tried to run for daylight.

You still move through the seasons with a sense of wonder that can betray your age.
Hardly anyone sends letters any more but on the return from a Valentine’s week vacation to Colombia there is a message from Pilar Quintana. You didn’t meet anyone named Pilar Quintana in Colombia. Who is this person?

She writes:

I found your page in Tumblr and very much enjoyed your posts about Cali, more so since I know Suárez Fiat and Vicky Acosta. I’m from Cali also and I’m a writer myself (I have published three novels). My husband is originally from Northern Ireland but grew up in Australia. We’ve been living in Colombia’s Pacific Coast for over seven years now. After travelling around the world we ended up buying a beautiful piece of land on top of a jungle cliff here, built our wooden house and have been living a simple life since then.

One year ago we decided to do something with our lot and hence we created La Manigua Botanic Garden, where we protect its flora and fauna and share our knowledge of it with the visitors. In our Tumblr blog you can get a taste of the place.

The reason I’m writing is to let you know we are here, in case you like nature and want to discover the very wild and beautiful Colombia’s Pacific Coast. So, please, take this as an invitation. I must tell you, though, that our sunsets are over warm waters.”

This is what you have looked for in the mirror: something to do with your lot.

The author lost in Bogota’.

Something about two people traveling together, joining their dreams at the hip and softly dancing into a blossoming future. There’s been some rough visits to Colombia, but you go back wanting to give it all another chance. You sense the warmth. The invitation makes you feel good and again believe in the will of that face in the mirror.

Pilar later sends a synopsis of her third novel, “Conspiracio’n Iguana,” a thriller set in an apartment building for yuppies owned by a guru that keeps them happy so they go motivated to work every day (I imagine like Facebook in Silicone Valley.)

The main character discovers a secret jungle on the roof top where renegades experiment with psychedelic Indian stuff like yage. The yage is the bitter-tasting psychedelic hooch they’ve been drinking around Bogota’ for decades. Writer/gun freak William Burroughs road tripped to Colombia in the 1950s in search of yage.

The renegades conspire to overthrow the guru and the main character jumps in the fray.

Pilar also sends pictures of her beautiful garden and intoxicating red lips.
There’s a humpback whale with a new born baby. Between July and November Humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Colombia’s Pacific Ocean to mate and give birth.

There’s a red-legged honey creeper. It reminds you of that guy with the snoring problem next door on the third floor of the Covent. Did he pack heat in the coldest of places?

The final picture is the Bloodwood tree.

The tree is generally recognized by a crooked trunk and shiny green leaves. The tree naturally “bleeds” reddish sap and its “blood” is used to heal open wounds.
You know there is something very special in this garden.

You can’t wait to see it.