From the monthly archives: "November 2014"
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Peggy Mullins from a distance (Rene’ Greblo photo)

SPRINGFIELD, MO.–It is nearly an hour before showtime at Luttrell’s Auction and Live Music Barn on a recent Saturday night. An elderly woman in a purple sweater walks through four aisles of empty white plastic chairs to find a spot in the front row. This is her place in the world. There cannot be a sense of history without a place.

Peggy Mullins was married to country singer-songwriter Johnny Lafayette Mullins for 53 years.

He died in October, 2009 and that’s when she started coming to hear music in the former feed store.

Johnny Mullins is best known for the top ten hit “Company’s Comin,” recorded in 1954 by Porter Wagoner. Mullins met Wagoner at the Ozark Jubilee in downtown Springfield. That was a big place back then.

Mullins had a way with words and jingles. He grew up in Barry County, Mo. and taught himself how to play guitar by swatting wasps. Between 1957 and 1982 he was a custodian for the Springfield school system. He titled his 1983 autobiography “America’s Favorite Janitor.”

Johnny Mullins

Johnny Mullins

 “I met Johnny in 1956 at the Ozark Manufacturing Company in Springfield,” Peggy says before the main show featuring “The Barn Band.” “He was a packer and I was upholstered chairs. He got fired (laughs) not long after we met. He got in trouble for fussing with his boss. We got married about six months after we met. Then he started working for the Springfield school system.”

Peggy, 78, is packing a lot in on this early November day.

She has caught a 9 a..m.  show in Branson, about 30 miles south of Springfield. “I saw ‘Who’s Gonna’ Fill Their Shoes,” she says. ‘It’s about George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. Then I came here. I love this place.”

Her husband had the gumption Branson loves.  “Johnny was mainly a one man show,” she says. “He didn’t have a band. He wrote his own songs and sent demos to people. He had written ‘Company’s Comin’ before I met him. Then Loretta Lynn did his ‘Success (Has Made a Failure Out of Our Home in 1961)’ and that was a hit for her. She called John for another song. That was an experience. I answered the phone because he was at work. Since she was from Kentucky and had blue eyes, he wrote ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ for her. Emmylou Harris recorded it 15 years later.”

Elvis Costello and Sinead O’Connor each recorded Mullin’s “Success.”  The Ozark Playboys, a former Luttrell’s Auction Barn house band covered Mullins’ “Angel In The Hills” for Springfield’s own Top-Side label.

Long time Springfield guitarist D. Clinton Thompson (Morells, Skeletons, Park Central Squares) attended the Eugene Field elementary school in Springfield when Mullins was working there. “Mostly we just folded chairs and stacked tables,” he writes in a Friday email. “He was a nice man but I didn’t know he was a songwriter until I was told he was going to be on the Slim Wilson TV show (which aired 1964-75 from Springfield on KYTV-TV) singing songs he had written. I was only 11 and seeing someone I actually knew on TV was almost as exciting as seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. He wrote country songs and I was not interested in country music at the time.

“Little did I know it was already an inescapable part of my life.”

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I’m glad our photographer Rene’ Greblo takes a distant picture of Peggy.

It says a lot about the power of connection.

In his 1989 collection of essays, humanist-farmer Wendell Berry wrote, “A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.”

Living their entire life in this remote big place of Springfield, Mo. Peggy and Johnny had two daughters and two grandsons. In his later years Johnny liked to play horseshoes and he dabbled in organic gardening. He never strayed far from the music which is why Peggy comes back to this place, a pocket-sized throwback of the Ozark Jubilee.

She smiles and says, “The Jubilee was a wonderful place to go. It was clean. No alcohol. They started out with fiddle, guitar and banjo. They didn’t have drums years ago. Nothing was electric. They’re losing that now and it makes me upset. I went to the Grand Ole Opry recently and it was loud, loud music. I like to hear my music. I like to hear the  words.”

When Peggy Mullins hears the words she knows she is not alone.

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Photo by Rene’ Greblo

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—–The sameness that shades popular culture in America has not arrived along the Route 66 bypass on the northwest end of Springfield. A white aluminum shack that looks like a large trailer sits a good distance from the road. A portable barbecue stand is sizzling adjacent to the gravel driveway.

You have arrived at an unfiltered destination:

Luttrell’s Auction and Live Music Show, 2939 W. Kearney.

And the new Blue Grass BBQ.

Auction house owner Don Luttrell claims his business is the only auction house-live music venue west of the Mississippi River. It is an amazing joint. I haven’t seen live country music in such an authentic setting since the 1970s and 80s nights of the Sundowners’ RR Ranch in Chicago’s Loop.

On Friday and Saturday nights the house “Barn Band” plays traditional country music on a small stage illuminated by trippy multi-colored floor lamps. The band features 76-year-old Ozark Jubilee veterans Roger Blevins (pedal steel guitar) and lead guitarist Jerry Menown (lead guitar) as well as country-rock drummer “Bobby” Llloyd Hicks (Morells, Skeletons, NRBQ and about 45 other bands.)

Fans sit on white plastic chairs and when someone like Merle Haggard’s ex-wife Leona Williams appears, the crowd overflows into five rows of wooden bleachers. The capacity of the room is about 200 people.

An early 20th Century wooden hand cranked phone hangs on a wall behind the stage. Almost everyone in the audience is over 50 years old. No alcohol is served and Luttrell promptly ends his three-hour revue at 9 p.m. so people can get home early to rest for church or hit the first set atany other Springfield live music club.

The Barn Band numbers between five and seven people depending on who is sitting in. They cover traditional country music like Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On the Road.” For ringers the band will throw in The Surfaris instrumental hit “Wipeout” where Hicks leaps up and plays his drums standing up. He’ll also contribute vocals on rhythm and blues chestnuts like LaVern Baker’s 1954 hit “Tweedle Dee.” Blevins will introduce the 1959 Santo and Johnny instrumental “Sleep Walk” as an “all-skate” for when people moved in more graceful circles.

The Barn Band (Photo by Rene' Greblo)

Roger Blevins (L), Jerry Menown and The Barn Band (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

Hundreds of items from the weekly Thursday auctions remain uncovered on tables near the rear of the seating area.

The items are not for sale during concerts, although I did barter a brown monkey flower vase from Luttrell for $20.

Yes, different is good.

The wood frame auction and music barn building dates back to 1930 when it was built as a feed store. In the early 1950s the Springfield based Consumer’s Grocery chain rented the old feed store to sell a few items and store fireworks. A June 29, 1955 Kansas City Star article reported that a fireworks display exploded and spread through the building. Two young sisters were in the store buying a bottle of milk along with another female shopper. All three women died of smoke inhalation.  The City of Springfield soon banned the sale of fireworks and in 1955 the building was reborn as an auction house.

“I had a guy that came to one of my music shows and said they had a set up like this in North Carolina,” Luttrell said while taking tickets before an early November show. “That’s the only one I’ve heard of like this. And I don’t know if that still exists.”

The auction barn is on the Route 66 bypass. Luttrell said, “When you came into Springfield, 66 turned into Kearney Street. If you wanted to bypass the downtown you would come up here, turn and go south and be back on 66 again and go right into Mount Vernon and Halltown.”

Photo by Rene' Greblo

Photo by Rene’ Greblo

Why, of course you would. Bob Wills had that hit “Big Ball’s in Halltown.”

Just last month Luttrell alllowed Springfield barbecue king Sam Ashley to pitch his “Bluegrass BBQ” food truck in his parking lot. The tricked out truck is custom built from a 1979 camper and serves Memphis style BBQ year round every day except Sunday and Monday.

“Everybody here has a wet rub,” said Ashley, 38. “I’m originally from southeast Missouri. Mine is a dry rub. I started about four years ago in my back yard with a little old smoker. It took me a few years to get it down. They’re smoked for 13 hours to get that smoked flavor.” His barbecue is tender and accented with a homemade  sweet-with-heat sauce, rich K.C. Masterpiece sauce doctored up with pepper, cayenne, brown sugar, paprika and a  bit of maple syrup. A pulled pork sandwich is $3.50.  Homemade chili $2.50. “Everything is made from scratch,” he said. “My smoked beans is my own recipe. Nothing is bought in a can and poured in here.” Ashley’s wife Lydia helps him out in the truck. They have five children and they’ve purchased kid’s stuff and a generator across the lot at the auction.

One side of their kitchen wall is filled with yellow post-it-notes of different Bible scriptures.

“Every week we try to put up a new scripture,” Ashley said.

Not far from his reach a hand-scrawled note read: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.”—Psalm 118:8

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Lydia and Sam Ashley, November, 2014 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

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The lean and gentle Don Luttrell, 68,  has lived in the working class barn neighborhood most of his life.

He likes to call himself “D.L.” and one of his favorite phrases is, “I’m not trying to shine my own apple.” Luttrell is a native of Lake of the Ozarks, about 90 miles from Springfield. His parents were farmers.

His brother Jim Luttrell, 86, is a former Springfield disc jockey who played guitar and mandolin as a member of the Ozark Playboys, another popular barn act. He also worked for Si Siman’s Top Talent booking agency. Siman (1921-1994) , a Springfield native and record executive discovered Chet Atkins and Porter Wagoner when he created the Ozark Jubilee radio show. Jim also gigged for 18 years in Branson, about 30 miles south of Springfield. Jim Luttrell recently retired because he is going blind.

Don Luttrell recalled, “Around 1980 I was driving up the road one night and I heard music coming out of this little old building. I pulled in and it was Harold Morrison (banjo) and Jimmy Gateley (guitar), who used to be on the Jubilee (1956-57). Harold had a little band backed up in here. About two-thirds of the crowd was his family sitting in the bleachers. I remember walking in and Harold looked at me and said, ‘Hello Hoss!’ He called everybody ‘Hoss.’ One night after buying the auction house (in 2007) I was laying in bed thinking, ‘If Harold did it that one night, why don’t I do it all the time?’ The music here is almost like what Bill Monroe was with Kentucky bluegrass. It is very original. And Springfield didn’t have a family-friendly music show where there was no drinking or anything.”

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Springfield’s legacy of family-friendly live music shows was popularized with the Ozark Jubilee television show, which attracted 25 million television viewers across America between 1954 and 1960.

Luttrell started the live music in early 2008. “Leona Williams has grandchildren in the area so she sings here when she’s in town,” Luttrell said.

A playful black and white photo of Williams and Haggard in front of their tour bus hangs in the small auction house entry way.

“Norma Jean, who used to be with Porter Wagoner has been here. Claude Gray (who had the 1967 trucking hit “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go” and whose “I’ll Just Have Another Cup of Coffee” was reworked by Bob Marley as “One Cup of Coffee”) was just here from Texas. Former Domino Kings singer Brian Capps is in regular rotation with the accomplished house band. The late Springfield producer-bassist Lou Whitney often did the sound for the barn shows and sang with Capps. Whitney loved the acoustics because of the former feed store’s low ceiling.

The “Barn Band” plays within strokes of history.

Leona and Merle just havin' fun on the barn wall of fame.

Leona and Merle just havin’ fun on the barn wall of fame.

Blevins is regarded as one of the best steel players in the country and was a staff musician at KWTO, the Jubilee home radio station. Menown learned how to play Chet Atkins style while at the Jubilee and after the television show ended he played with Leroy Van Dyke and Patsy Cline. Hank Garland (1930-2004) became one of his favorite jazz-influenced guitarists so Menown made a similar seamless crossover move.

In the auction barn, Blevins and Menown form a modern day Jimmy Bryant (guitar, 1925-1980) and Springfield native Speedy West (pedal steel, 1924-2003) who recently have been popularized by Bill Frisell.

The connection makes perfect sense as Bryant played the Stratosphere Twin double-neck guitar, manufactured in the mid-1950s on Boonville Avenue in Springfield. Bryant’s adroit and fast picking delivered country hits like “Stratosphere Boogie” and “Caffeine Patrol,” both recorded with West. “People don’t realize it was tuned different,” Blevins said in an interview before their barn burning set. “It was tuned in thirds. That made the unique sound.”

Menown grew up with his mother and grandparents. His mom was a garment worker and his grandmother ran a dry cleaning business in nearby Nixa, Mo. Blevins’ father was a diesel mechanic and his mother worked at a furniture company south of Springfield. Blevins and Menown met in a 1954 fiddle contest in nearby Nixa. “And we’ve been playing together since we were 18,” Menown humble-boasted. “When I was a little boy I came to the barn with the neighbors to buy feed. Mr. Luttrell called us  to play. We first played with fiddling bands then this band formed.”

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Blevins added, “The Ozark Jubilee put Springfield on the map pretty good. There’s a lot of good musicians here and a lot of big name acts came through here.” Carl Perkins made his national television debut singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Jubilee.

The Jubilee television show was filmed live at the since-razed Jewell Theater in downtown Springfield. The show gave birth to a mid-1950s nightlife scene that was similar to the mid-1950 and 60s  honky tonk scene of Lower Broadway in Nashville, Tn. Menown said, “It was very busy. I got to play on the Jubilee for three months with Porter Wagoner. There were three or four clubs on each corner. They’re all tore down now. There was a hotel. A nice lounge. A lot of musicians could find work in those four blocks there.”

Sometimes after Jubilee artists and staff musicians would adjourn to the Half A Hill Club, which ran from Prohibition through the 1970s.

Blevins said, “That was a set up club down on Long Pine. You brought your own bottle (of alcohol) and they sold drinks. It was a big place. Jerry and I worked there lots of times. There was dancing and a lot of drinking. It’s not there any more. There’s not as many live bands as there used to be. We still play what we call hard-core country music and Western Swing. It’s hard to find that any more.”

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Don Luttrell (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

The Springfield musicians do what they can to bring back the spirit of that scene at Luttrell’s Auction Barn.

Jim Luttrell said, “The Ozark Jubilee did a lot of good for Springfield. People came in from different states. They would eat at our restaurants and buy stuff.” Don Luttrell leaned back in the front entrance against a wall of empty slots used for auction tickets. He recalled, “Growing up around here it seemed like every family had a music background. Churches. Pie suppers. Square dances. People entertained themselves.”

Pie suppers?

“A girl would bring a pie and people would bid on it,” he continued. “I bought my girl friend’s pie for 15 cents but was ashamed to go eat with her. So she ate it with somebody else I guess.” Jim looked at his brother and said, “He was  born three months after I got married. So I know I’m older than he is. But he’s smarter than I am. It was rough for me growing up on the farm in the 1930s. Depression days. I worked for 15 cents a day and bought a package of king size cigarettes for 11 cents. I started out bad. But I made a career out of playing music. I played mandolin, guitar, harmonica, dobro, fiddle and ukelele. Besides Branson, I played 42 churches and 21 rest homes. And I enjoyed it.”

This music comes from deep within.

And it is sold to the highest bidder.

Bobby Lloyd Hicks (Drums) and Men at Work in the barn (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

Bobby Lloyd Hicks (Drums) and Men at Work in the barn (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

Nelson Algren when Wicker Park was real.

Nelson Algren when Wicker Park was real.

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.

Algren at Home (Robseymour.com)

Nelson Algren at home in Chicago (Robseymour.com)

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.

The Algren Fountain (Photo courtesy of the Nelson Algren Commiteee)

The Algren Fountain (Photo courtesy of the Nelson Algren Commiteee)

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.

Moose Skowron, a member of the 1965 White Sox

Moose Skowron, a member of the 1965 White Sox. Algren certainly could relate to this man.

“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.

Caregiver art by Ted Crow, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Caregiver art by Ted Crow, Cleveland Plain Dealer

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.

Again.

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.

Things I see while shopping at Meier in Aurora.

Things I see while shopping at Meier in Aurora.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

DH BOOK COVER final-2

Springfield music book design by Lance Tawzer

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.

Lou's worldly bass, Nov. 9, 2014 (Photo by Rene' Greblo)

Lou’s worldly bass, Nov. 9, 2014 (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

Jeremy Pollock portrait by James Iska

Jeremy Pollack portrait made by James Iska two months ago.

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.”

Jeremy Pollack

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.

Scott Momenthy (L) and Jeremy Pollack contemplating the future of the newspaper industry in 1986 (Courtesy of Scott Momenthy)

Scott Momenthy (L) and Jeremy Pollack contemplating the future of the newspaper industry in 1986 (Courtesy of Scott Momenthy)

“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.”

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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.”

Jeremy Pollack would pick up stacks of The Chicago Sheet at the printer and strap them to the back of his scooter for delivery.

Jeremy Pollack would pick up stacks of The Chicago Sheet at the printer and strap them to the back of his scooter for delivery.

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.

Copyright Hector Maldonado

Copyright Hector Maldonado

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.

Hector and Salin (Courtesy of Hector Maldonado)

Hector and Salin (Courtesy of Hector Maldonado)

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.”

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Copyright Hector Maldonado

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.”

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My friend Hector Maldonado

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.”

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Istanbul Hatch Man (Copyright Hector Maldonado)

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.

Dave and Hector, Istanbul March, 2012 (Photo by Selin Maldonado)

Dave and Hector, Istanbul March, 2012 (Photo by Selin Isin-Maldonado)