Friday, March 11, 2016

THE CITY OF CHICAGO: Rock’n’Roll Paradise? [1980]

Text by Cary Baker / FFanzeen, 1980
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #6, dated Year-End 1980. It was written by writer-turned-press agent extraordinaire Cary Baker.

Baker, who is well regarded in the music historian field, studied journalism at Northern Illinois University, and despite all his protesting below, moved to Los Angeles to work at Capitol Records and Discovery Records in the publicity field. He now owns and runs the Conqueroo PR firm, where he works long hours promoting some major talent. 

As for Chicago, well, I’ve never been there – yet. A good friend and musician/writer, JD Glass, moved to the Windy City (aka Chi-Town) recently, so who knows, I still may get there; then you can ask: “Chicagee? Did you drove or did you flew?,” in the words of Sid Dithers. – RBF, 2016

I’ve spent countless weeks in both New York and L.A. and you know what? I like Chicago better than either of ‘em. Enough so that if I could afford it, I’d buy a house right in the center. I’ve had ample opportunity to relocate; could’ve kissed a little ass and taken an editorial job in L.A., had I been willing to zero in on Bee Gees, KISS and Boston (to provide some time reference). Looked over Cleveland, Detroit, Nashville, Minneapolis (an almost, if it weren’t for the climate), Atlanta, Dallas, Milwaukee, Tulsa, St. Louis – Nothing compares. This city gives me the best feeling of all.

Chicago has borne the brunt of several misconceptions. Gangsters are relegated to the 1st Ward, which is miles from my neighborhood. Chicago (the group) plays here no more frequently than, say, the Eagles and go just as shunned by the rock’n’roll intelligentsia. At its worst, it is practically true that everyone knows someone who knows someone whose sister went out with Cliff Johnson of [the band] Off Broadway. Chicago is WLUP (“The Loo, FM 98”, Steve Dahl’s largely-metal AOR station) [now a Classic Rock station – rbf, 2016], but it’s also WXRT (“Chicago’s Fine Rock Station,” with lots of New Wave, Blues, Jazz, R&B and Reggae – hip enough to flail stills of Marley, Costello and Springsteen on its TV spots) [now an Adult Album Alternative station – rbf, 2016].

Whereas New York is The Village Voice, Soho and the Aquarian, Chicago is the Reader [aka The Chicago Reader] (free very Thursday night) and the Illinois Entertainer. While L.A. is pastrami tacos in hotdog-shaped outdoor stands, Chicago is El Taco Loco, Korean grills, gyros, corned beef and stuffed pizza. Where New York’s not the Mudd Club or CBGBs, Chicago‘s not Tuts or Jamie’s or Neo. Soho-style lofts are relegated to Printers Row in the North Loop; Chicago’s “look” is 1930-vintage Greystone six-flats which look like home and still hold up and cost $305-350/month – lower than New York but higher than Louisville or Rockford. For that, you have proximity to subways, the beach, restaurants, clubs and a copy of the Reader. You can also park your car out in front, some of the time anyway.

There’s no James White or Lydia Lunch in Chicago; there’s no Skafish or Desmond anywhere else I’m aware of; the Chicago influence (hale’n’hearty, blues bars in the neighborhood, X-rated flicks three blocks over) is particularly evident in the style of the latter. Chicago has never had a band like X – I doubt we could; Immune System, Dadistics, Bohemia and Phil ‘n’ The Blanks – for better or worse, are more our style. You don’t have club DJs as universally recognizable as Phast Phreddie or “Get-Off-the-Air” Rodney [Bingenheimer – rbf, 2016]; then again, the records you hear at Neo in Chicago are far better.

Chicago’s a pedestrian city. You can walk it at any hour of the day, except for certain sections (like Clybourne & Division or 63rd and Woodlawn). It used to be the good schools and corner grocery stores that kept people in the neighborhood; now it’s actually the Reader, which you can’t find in the auto-oriented suburbs. Chicago’s not an industrial city – most such activity occurs largely to the east in Gary or Hammond, Indiana, or south in the Calumet regions. There are suburbs that look variously like Westchester, Hackensack, Rockaway Beach, Edison, Shaker Heights, Culver City and Southfield. Some, like Schaumburg (home of B. Ginnings – the Capitol Theatre of the Chicago area) are mini-metropolises, with phenomenal growth rates over the past ten years (Schaumburg rose from 18,000 to 62,000 in that time [at last official count, in 2013, the population there is 74,907 – rbf, 2016]. Others, like Evanston, are old, landlocked, racially balanced, collegiate and comfortable. The less-descriptive suburbs have metal/glam groups that play shopping-strip nighteries like Studio One and Pip’s. No doubt Trillion, M&R Rush and the Boyzz recall Twisted Sister and their ilk. Such species have been tar’n’feathered from all but a very few inner-city clubs. Every so often, you’ll hear of an R. Stevie Moore disciple living in an exurb like Joliet or Aurora or Elgin. Occasionally, you meet someone who grew up in Rockford (2 hours by Interstate), where the five best minds are doubtless Cheap Trick [inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 – rbf, 2016] and John Anderson. Or a place you never through about twice, such as East Chicago, Indiana, turns out of be the home of Skafish; or the nuke-invested Zion, Illinois, which unassumingly gave us Shoes, as well as six-inch spiders.

Chicagoans don’t ask a lot. A nice apartment/condo/coachhouse, a good meal (Schezwan, Sushi, fondue or Thai will do), a concert at Park West ($8.50 covers a two-drink minimum [tickets are in the $30 range now – rbf, 2016]) and a weekend for two in nearby Lake Geneva will hold you for a week.

Better pick up the Reader before you get too comfy on Thursday night or else all your phone pals will be quoting Don McLeese’s reviews despite you. They’ve been bombasting the reviews in the dailies all day. Saturday afternoons are spent at Wax Trax, possibly the best record store in the world with everything from Mickey Gilley’s Drive-In-Movie, to Human League, with videos, old fan mags, new British fanzines, Russian Beatle imports and very elaborate décor.

Sunday mornings are leisurely brunches at the 2350, Otto’s Coq Rouge, Oxford’s or the neighborhood hash house. Sometimes, brunch is followed by a sojourn to Maxwell Street Market where you can still see Big Walter Horton [d. 1981] and Blind Arvella Gray [d. 1980] playing Blues outdoors on the street corners. You can buy anything from a hot Fender bass to your stolen hubcaps there. In ten years, this strictly Chicago institution will be a memory, as the adjacent University of Illinois-Chicago Campus engulfs. Sunday afternoons – when a blizzard hasn’t hit – are well-spent exploring unknown sections of the sixty-square-mile metropolitan area. Or visiting friends in the ‘burbs for a brief respite. Or Cubs games or Bears games or corner laundromats or records in the living room. Or people-watching on the subways or at record collectors’ conventions or the Chicago Public Library.

When it comes down to it, Chicago is the most livable city in the U.S. that’s still exciting and omnipotent. The real lack of enlightenment is not among us-by-choice-Midwesterners, but rather those convinced there’s no life more intelligent than nocturnal fungus existing west of the Hudson and east of Riverside/San Bernardino. If you don’t believe it, visit. Bring lots of cash, plan to pick up (and devour) the Reader. Check out Tuts, eat at a decorless Korean grill for $4, spend $50 on rockabilly singles at Wax Trax, tune in WXRT between 7-11 PM, and visit the Maxwell Street Flea Market (home of Aretha’s soul Food Café). Take in a museum. Walk the lakefront.

I guarantee you’ll be profoundly moved.

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