Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Plutocrat (The Ballad of Bruce Rauner)

Last weekend I wrote a song that mentions charter schools, the bourgeoisie and reproductive rights. It also name-checks Walter Payton, H.G. Wells and Arne Duncan.

Cole Porter, Doc Pomus and Gerry Goffin are likely rolling over in their graves.

Plutocrat (The Ballad of Bruce Rauner)

Some rich guys buy fancy cars
Some spend their money on old guitars
Some go in for private planes and boats

Well, I like houses -- I own nine
And I drink $6000 wine
And I'm tryin' hard to buy your November votes

Yeah, my wristwatch cost me eighteen bucks
I wear Carhartt clothes when I hunt for ducks
And I even drive around in a beat-up van

But I'm a straight-up, blood-suckin' billionaire
Who hates payin' taxes for Medicare
And I bank in the Cayman Islands anytime I can

So, Springfield, get out the welcome mat
What this state needs is a plutocrat
A slashin', burnin', union-bustin' guy

I'll hammer and shake that capitol dome
Like it's a grandma stuck in a nursing home
Hey, grandma, it's time to say goodbye

Well, I'm mighty proud of one thing I did
Tryin' to educate my suburban kid
I had Arne Duncan lend me a helping hand

He took my call without hesitatin'
Then my kid got a spot at Walter Payton
And I gave that school 250 grand

I want charter schools in every town
where the kids are poor and black or brown
You know I've even got a school named after me

And I could have sent my own kid there
But I'm a wealthy man, and it's only fair
That her school be largely white and bourgeoisie


Now I know it's become the latest craze
But I try not to talk about marryin' gays
Social issues bring my numbers down

Same is true for reproductive rights
I don't want to pick any needless fights
I'll be a blank slate until I win that crown

I've got my own economic plan
But like H.G. Wells' "Invisible Man"
The details . . . well, they're mighty hard to see

And I do my best to avoid the stage
If they want me to talk about the minimum wage
'Cause I’d rather have those people work for free


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Up With Hope, Down With . . . Soap?

When I got a message this morning to call my guitar-slingin' compadre Steve Doyle, I figured he either had a line on a tavern gig for us, or he wanted to share some updated injury information for this week's Bears-Dolphins game.

Alas, I was wrong on both counts.

Stevie wanted to talk personal hygiene.

An hour earlier, while he was getting his lovely daughter ready for another day at CPS's Beaubien Elementary School, he did what most of us grade-school parents do on a daily basis with our own kids. He reminded his second-grader to brush her teeth and wash her hands and face.

That's when something clicked in his daughter's head and she dropped her Thursday morning bomb: "Did you know we haven't had any soap in our school bathrooms this week?"

Stevie hadn't been aware of that fact, so he called the school's front office and confirmed it. He then reached out to me.

I called the school roughly an hour later. I was told that the bathrooms had been soap-free this week, but was assured that a new shipment of soap arrived late Wednesday night.

I was also told that no one in the front office wanted to talk with me on the record.

CPS has been hearing complaints from parents, students and principals all over the city this fall about school cleanliness issues.

These complaints, no surprise, come hot on the heels of CPS having privatized the management of its school custodial services. Tim Cawley, the district's Chief Administrative Officer and the mastermind of the janitorial privatization plan, heard an earful about school cleanliness at September's Board of Education meeting. He vowed that Aramark, the company that won the contract, would soon be "flooding the zone" to address those problems.

Maybe it's time to flood Cawley's phone line with audio snippets from The Jarmels' 1961 hit, "A Little Bit of Soap."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Get Well Soon, Karen Lewis

Dear Karen,

My family and I send you our best wishes as you work to get yourself back in good health. I’m confident your hospital room is filled with flowers and Hallmark cards from your many friends across the country. We’re all pulling for you to get well soon.

I decided to go with this online get-well card. It's one that should be right up your alley because it involves Chicago labor history and features a former CPS student.

The student is my oldest daughter, Chelsea. She’s now 22 years old, and she recently started working as a teacher in France.

Back In 2007, when she was a freshman at Lincoln Park High School, Chelsea did a History Fair project about the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.

While researching the massacre and its aftermath, she learned a lot about labor, power and workers’ rights. She even got to interview Mollie West, one of the people she portrayed in her 10-minute, solo performance.

As far as the History Fair goes, Chelsea’s performance was well-received. She advanced to the national finals and finished in the Top 10 in her category. For my money, however, the most important part of her learning experience that year took place over Memorial Day weekend, just a couple of weeks before she headed to Maryland for the national competition.

Chelsea was invited to perform her piece across the street from the site of the massacre, in a building that is now the headquarters of USWA Local 1033. She stood that Sunday afternoon before a packed house that included sons, daughters and grandchildren of people murdered 70 years earlier.

Chelsea gave it her all. I was there. She was great.

Here is a video of an earlier version of her performance, one filmed in a more antiseptic setting by the Chicago Metro History Education Center and posted on its YouTube channel a couple of years ago.


My family and I hope to see you back on the streets soon, my friend.



Saturday, October 4, 2014

The House of Stuart

I’ve deleted many, many episodes of his weekly television show from the DirecTV DVR box in my basement, but Marty Stuart continues to occupy most of the virtual real estate on that recorder. As of this morning, 66 episodes of The Marty Stuart Show, which airs every Saturday night on RFD-TV (Rural America’s Most Important Network), have survived my periodic programming purges.

Yes, I’m running out of disc space, but I can’t seem to pull the trigger and delete performances by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives -- one of the baddest bands in the land -- jamming with folks like Tommy Emmanuel, Deke Dickerson, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin.

Tonight, however, I won’t need to sit in front of my basement TV to enjoy the music. The boys are back in town. One night only, Chicago. The Old Town School of Folk Music.

The joint will jump, but there’ll also be enough gospel music played to earn you a dispensation from having to attend church tomorrow.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A 50-50 Chance of Good Music

We’re calling it a belated 50th birthday bash in the 50th Ward, but it’s really just an excuse for two not-so-young-anymore guys to play some music on a Saturday night in one of our favorite local pubs.

On Saturday, September 20, when I regroup with my Tele-slinging pal Steve Doyle at McKellin’s Pub, he and I will both be 50 years old. (Stevie turns 50 later this month; I crossed -- okay, stumbled across -- that bridge at the end of July.) To celebrate our collective century of service, we’ll serve up three hours of rock-‘n-roll and honky-tonk classics for the assembled West Rogers Park masses.

Given our advanced ages and high co-pays, Stevie and I will likely scale back a lot of the trademark choreography that put us on the pop culture map when we were in our mid-40s. And bathroom breaks that once took place between sets may now take place between songs, or (heaven help us) between verses.

Other than that, you’ll be treated to the same type of high-octane -- but possibly Low T -- performance that we’ve been delivering at bars and bar mitzvahs across the city for years. If you’ve never seen Mr. Doyle play the guitar, you’re in for a treat. He’s one of the best in Chicago.

We'll do our best to honor your musical requests (although it is getting harder to remember lyrics and chord changes), and we fully expect to be joined throughout the evening by a number of special musical guests.

Hope to see you at McKellin’s Pub, 2800 W. Touhy Avenue, on Saturday, September 20. All the fun starts at 8 p.m. There’s no cover charge and parking is a snap.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Eighteen Hours and Counting . . .

I'm an old guy, so most of the music I own takes up space on my basement shelves, not on clouds or hard drives. But I'm no Luddite, and over time I've managed to load plenty of CDs onto my computer, so I can then enjoy that music on a portable listening device while commuting, exercising, or tuning out my kids.

I'm also no stranger to assembling playlists, having wasted a lot of my high school and college years carefully piecing together countless mix tapes. But my mix tapes generally maxed out at 90 minutes, and most of my digital playlists these days run no longer than two or three hours.

Then I started re-reading Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren.

I bought the book about ten years ago, largely on the strength of the authors' previous work for the now-defunct No Depression magazine, and I return to it at least once a year, if only to resolve a pressing music trivia issue.

The authors plow through roughly 80 years of recorded music and make a case -- in the form of 500 mini-essays -- for ranking 500 country singles, while acknowledging at the outset the inherent subjectivity and arbitrariness involved in any such undertaking. (Spoiler alert: the authors give top billing to Sammi Smith's 1970 recording of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night.") Their larger goal is to dig into and discuss 500 significant songs, their singers, and the musical backdrop against which those records were made.

Country "purists" may wonder why a list of great country singles includes recordings by Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Slim Harpo, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, but the authors aren't genre purists and they offer sound explanations for each choice.

I grabbed Heartaches off my bookshelf last week to look up some information about a classic Stanley Brothers record -- "Rank Stranger" (#9) -- and then, after finding my answer, I kept turning the pages. I started thinking that I probably owned most of the music discussed in the book and had likely already loaded a good chunk of it onto my computer.

As it turns out, I do own a lot the music discussed in the book, but I'd only loaded about one-third of it onto my computer. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that second key fact until I'd already decided to assemble a Heartaches playlist.

I've not yet finished the list, but I've made a reasonably thorough pass through my CD collection and cobbled together nearly 400 of the 500 songs. It took some effort, given the stacks and stacks of discs in my basement. I know I'll never get back the 15 minutes I spent sifting through piles of CDs for Moon Mullican's recording of "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," but I knew the disc was still in my house, and I'm nothing if not persistent.

A lot of the fun I had assembling this playlist came from digging out some superb records that I don't listen to often enough. A few that come to mind are "Begging to You" by Marty Robbins (#98), "Stratosphere Boogie" (#206) by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and Swamp Dogg's version of Joe South's "These Are Not My People" (#410).

I have no plans to acquire the songs that aren't in my collection. Some of them aren't my cup of tea (Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine"); others seem too obscure to hunt down (Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live").

But the tunes I have assembled make for a country playlist on steroids. Clocking in at just over 18 hours, this compilation will keep me entertained for some time.

And I owe it all to a good book.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

That's What I Like About the South

It’s not what I’d call a holiday tradition -- it’s more like an end-of-the-year ritual for me -- but it’s definitely something I look forward to doing every December.

That’s when I dig into Oxford American’s Annual Southern Music Issue.

If you’re a music geek or you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the music geek in your life, hustle over to your local newsstand and pick up a copy. Thirteen bucks gets you a lot of great writing and plenty of top-shelf music.

This year’s theme is the “The Music of Tennessee,” and the tie that binds the essays and recordings this time around appears to be the zip codes of recording studios, not the birthplaces of the artists who cut at them. (Folks like B.B. King, Charlie Rich, Al Green, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Ann Peebles waxed some classic sides in Tennessee, but they weren’t born in the Volunteer State.)

If you’d enjoy pumping quarters into a jukebox that allows you to jump from Isaac Hayes to Connie Smith to Big Maybelle to Big Star, you’ll enjoy the 2-CD set that comes with the magazine.

As for the writing, Oxford American always keeps the bar high. Whether it’s prose penned by music writers like Joe Nick Patoski and Robert Gordon or by music makers like Rosanne Cash and Jim Dickinson, you’ll read and re-read a lot of these pieces. (I keep back issues of OA’s Southern Music Issue on one of my bookshelves, and I regularly return to that musical well.)

Thirteen bucks not only gets you fifty songs, it gets you session bassist Norbert Putnam’s account of playing on a sham 1970 recording session that Elvis Presley set up to fool his wife, Priscilla.

Elvis may be dead, but print isn’t and neither are CDs. Go buy the issue.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving . . .

For damn near each of the last fifteen years, I've spent the night before Thanksgiving making music with friends in any number of watering holes around town.

This year will be no exception.

On Wednesday, November 27, my buddy Steve Doyle and I will once again set up shop at McKellin's Pub in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood for (at least) three hours of old-time rock-n-roll and honky-tonk classics. We fully expect to be joined by any number of special musical guests.

All the fun starts at 6:30 p.m., parking is a snap, and there's no cover charge. Hope to see you at McKellin's, 2800 W. Touhy, as we kick off the long holiday weekend among friends.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Takin' It to the Streets

It was an easy decision for me.

First, the Bears don't play on Sunday, October 13.

Second, I'm not running the 2013 Chicago Marathon, which also takes place that day. Truth be told, I swore off marathon running at age 8, after watching an impostor steal Frank Shorter's thunder at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

So when a friend recently asked me to play music on October 13 in conjunction with "Art Round Trip," a Sunday afternoon tour of Rogers Park studios, galleries and exhibitions, I signed on.

But I did so only after enlisting an actual artist, my friend Brian Wilkie, to play this "arts" event with me. ("Art Round Trip" is sponsored by the Rogers Park Arts Alliance.)

Brian's one of Chicago's in-demand, A-list guitar players and it's always a treat -- and a learning experience -- for me to play music with him. Over the years, the man's shared stages with musical heavyweights from A (Alison Krauss) to Z (Zoot Sims). In his younger days, he worked professionally in Nashville with folks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

In any event, Brian and I will set up shop on the street in front of Xoro, a gallery located at 1228 W. Loyola Avenue, near the Loyola El stop. Should the weather look dicey that day, we'll play inside Xoro.

We'll be rockin' and rollin' from noon until 2 p.m. There's no cover charge. We may have some special musical guests, and we certainly hope to see you out and about.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Voice I No Longer Hear

I've got a pretty good ear for voices. Ten seconds into a recording, I can usually tell you that we’re listening to Faron Young or Carla Thomas or Jimmy Witherspoon or Shirley Horn.

In fact, just by typing those names, I can instantly conjure up the sounds of their singing (and, in some cases, speaking) voices.

But I realized today that I'm having a hard time remembering what my dad's voice sounded like.

Carla Thomas? I last heard her voice -- on record, mind you -- probably a month ago. My dad's voice? I haven't heard it since the morning of September 25, 1978.

Unlike Carla, my dad wasn't a recording artist, so I can't pull a CD off my shelf when I want to hear his baritone. And YouTube is no help because my dad died before we became a nation that videotaped everything.

I can't remember what we said to each other on that warm September morning, but I'm sure we had some rushed conversation while he got ready for work and I got ready for school. Had you told me then that it was going to be the last time I got to talk with him, rest assured I'd remember our exchange 35 years later.

I am still able to revisit many of the conversations that we had over the years; it's just the distinct tonal qualities of his voice I'm struggling to recall.

Johnny Hartman? I can hear his voice in my head in a split second. My own dad? That's a different story.

Luckily, though, I still remember tooling around Alsip, Illinois with him on a Saturday morning back in 1972. We were listening to the AM radio in our white 1965 Ford Galaxie 500. I was in the front seat (no seat belt) singing along with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." When the song ended, my dad gently told me, "Matt, it's 'I can see all obstacles in my way.' It’s not 'all popsicles in my way.'" That, of course, launched him into an entertaining talk on oft-misunderstood lyrics in pop music.

I remember being 9 or 10 years old and sitting with him on a Saturday morning in a booth at a diner in Burlington, Iowa. He explained the pick-and-roll to me using salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle. Our waitress walked by the table several times and seemed to have no idea what my dad was doing.

I also remember talking to him a year or so later while we drove home from a Hy-Vee grocery store in Burlington. My then-unemployed dad explained to me why he had just paid for our family's groceries using something called "food stamps."

That stuck with me -- the same way I hope a similar conversation I had 7 or 8 years ago with my now 21-year-old daughter sticks with her. She and I were discussing the need for certain government programs that had recently been in the headlines. Until that particular conversation, she'd had no idea that she was a public aid baby. Neither her mother nor I had health insurance -- or even incomes -- when she was born. I wanted to provide my teenage daughter (by then, the child of two practicing lawyers) with some perspective. Did it sink in? Time will tell.

Back to my dad. I remember sitting with him at our kitchen table in Villa Park, Illinois in 1977 or early 1978. We were eating breakfast and somehow we started talking about death. (This was just a random conversation. My dad wasn't sick, and his fatal heart attack months later at age 39 came out of the blue.) During our conversation he mentioned two books that I eventually got around to reading years after his death. One was Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One"; the other was Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death."

What I remember most about that conversation was my dad telling me that the funeral industry was a racket. Salesmen, he said, pushed people into making the third biggest purchase of their lives (behind houses and cars) at a point when buyers were least able to make rational consumer decisions.

He told me he wanted no part of that. "Put me in a pine box," he said.

Fast-forward to September 26 or 27, 1978. While my newly-widowed 37-year-old mom scrambled to find matching white shirts for each of her five boys to wear to the funeral later that week, I babbled to her about Jessica Mitford, pine boxes, and that relatively recent breakfast conversation I'd had with my dad.

I must have been a pain in the ass at 14.

Back when I could still remember the sound of my dad's voice.