Saturday, May 6, 2017

Memorial Day Weekend Music

Our friends at McKellin's Pub are celebrating the bar's 19th anniversary over Memorial Day weekend, and I've recruited a couple of my favorite music-making compadres to help me keep things jumping at the tavern on Sunday, May 28.

Steve Doyle, Lisa DeRosia, and I recently joined forces to pay musical tribute to Kellyanne Conway and her equally fact-challenged boss. Check it out.

Alternative Facts
(M. Farmer)

Well, two plus two is five
Frederick Douglass is still alive
Vladimir Putin had nothing
To do with those hacks
Alternative facts

I was quick to condemn the Ku Klux Klan
My executive order's not a Muslim ban
They were clapping in New Jersey 
For the 9/11 attacks
Alternative facts

I’ll tell you up is down and black is white
And every little thing is gonna be alt-right
The truth is gonna be whatever I say
Call me Mango Mussolini
Or just Il Duce

I really care about working class folks
Global warming is a Chinese hoax
3 Doors Down is one of our greatest
Rock-n-roll acts
Alternative facts

You know Mexico is gonna pay for that wall
My great big hands can palm a basketball
And when my audit's done
I'll tell you what I paid in tax
Alternative facts

I’ll tell you up is down and black is white
And every little thing is gonna be alt-right
The truth is gonna be whatever I say
Call me Mango Mussolini
Or just Il Duce

My thoughts and prayers go out to Bowling Green
I'm the least racist person that you've ever seen
I've always had a great relationship
With the blacks
Alternative facts

I've got a real good handle on foreign affairs
We need guns in our schools to kill grizzly bears
And you know Kellyanne is the queen
Of the mendacious flacks
Alternative facts

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Donald J. Twitter

Some folks spent January 1, 2017 nursing hangovers and watching college football. I spent it writing a song about Donald J. Trump and his increasingly dangerous Twitter habit.

My song, Donald J. Twitter, failed to land me a spot on the bill with 3 Doors Down and Jackie Evancho at Trump’s incredibly well-attended, record-breaking inauguration, but I have been able to perform it live from time to time in The Annoyance Theatre's ongoing production of Fuck Trump: A Collection of Songs to Demonstrate What a Horrible Person Donald Trump Is.

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

(M. Farmer)

Hey, Kellyanne, give me my phone
I’m gonna need some time alone
You know I always do my best work on the shitter
And I don’t need Meet the Press or my own Gettysburg Address
When I can climb upon my throne
And get on Twitter

Let’s go to @realdonaldtrump
Where my old brain can take a dump
And talk about the issues of the day
From pathetic SNL to amazing Israel
When I’m on the stump
Just watch me fire away

You know it’s anybody’s guess
As to when some global mess
Is gonna overwhelm my short attention span
Oh, but I’ll be there to tweet; I’ve gotta give my base red meat
That is unless
I switch to Instagram


Well, my favorite way to tweet
Is to pick on some elite
And call him lots of kindergarten names
If he’s a third-rate loser clown, well, that’s the way I’ll take him down
Just bring the heat
Until he goes up in flames

And women ain’t immune
From the wrath of this tycoon
I’ve got 140 characters of hate
So if some beauty queen gets fat, I don’t grab her by the cat
I just lampoon
Her ever-changing weight


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Takin' It to the Streets

My 14-year-old daughter still wonders why her old man -- a cranky, gray-haired lawyer -- enjoys spending the occasional Saturday or Sunday morning busking on the streets of Chicago. I do it, I tell her, because I enjoy making music, meeting interesting people, and regularly stumbling into situations that ultimately make for great stories. I don't have a head of hair like I did 25 years ago, when I often played music on the corner of Belmont and Broadway, but my voice and my guitar playing have improved over time.

Chopping changes on a busy Chicago corner in 1990

So, too, have my busking-related stories.

It was just last year, for example, while playing my guitar and singing on a lovely spring afternoon near the corner of Michigan and Erie, that I ended up lecturing -- guitar in hand, mind you -- a group of unsuspecting Northwestern University law students, who almost certainly had me pegged as a broken-down, peripatetic minstrel, hustling for lunch money on the Magnificent Mile.

My current musical antics now have me following in the footsteps of my oldest daughter (now almost 25), who, as a high school student, acted and sang in The Annoyance Theatre's 2010 production of "40 Whacks," a dark musical comedy about the Lizzie Borden axe murders. When your high school kid lands a role in an Annoyance production, rest assured yours is a twisted kid. And I, of course, wouldn't have it any other way.

A young Chelsea Farmer, as Bridget, the Bordens' Irish maid

Which is why I, the equally twisted father, was thrilled, some six years later, to end up playing and singing on the Annoyance stage. And the only reason it happened was because I continued hitting the streets with my guitar.

Flash back to September 18. I was playing music outdoors in Lincoln Square. At some point during my roughly two-hour set, I sang "Trump's America," a cautionary tale I'd written and recorded about Donald J. Trump back in March. A couple of passersby introduced themselves and told me how much they enjoyed the song. Those folks were Mick Napier, founder and artistic director of The Annoyance, and Jennifer Estlin, actress and executive director of that same Chicago comedy institution. Mick also told me that he'd just opened a new show at The Annoyance. The show, he said, was called "Fuck Trump: A Collection of Songs to Demonstrate What a Horrible Person Donald Trump Is."

I thanked both Mick and Jennifer for their kind words, and then I told them that I had an Annoyance connection. I was Chelsea Farmer's dad.

They laughed, said a lot of nice things about my kid, and we exchanged contact information. We also talked generally about finding a time for me to play my song during the new Annoyance show.

A few weeks later, I wrote a second Trump tune, "Tic Tac Trump." With the second song in the can, I connected, via email, with Mick and Jennifer, and we nailed down a time for me to play some music in their show.

And since my buddy Steve Doyle played outstanding electric guitar on each of my Trump tunes, I made sure that I would hit the Annoyance stage on a night that he was able to join me. I also know that Steve is good friends with (and an occasional bandmate of) Lisa McQueen, music director at The Annoyance. And to demonstrate just how small the world is, my friend Al Rose, a great Chicago singer-songwriter who also works regularly with our mutual buddy Steve Doyle in his own first-rate band, not only contributed songs to "Fuck Trump," but is also a member of the show's cast.

Having worked out the scheduling details with the powers-that-be, I first hit the stage with Steve last Friday night to perform "Tic Tac Trump" at the end of the show. It was a blast. We did it again on Monday night, and that night Steve was also able to sit in on the songs that Al sings during the show.

This Friday night, which could possibly turn out to be Night Three of my four-year membership in the Loyal Opposition, I will be filling in for Al, who, along with Steve, will be opening for David Bromberg at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

What this means for me is that I'll kick off the Annoyance show on what I assume will be its final night. Al ordinarily does the first song of the show. This weekend, however, that task will fall to me. After the opening number, I'll obviously race back to the green room for some cold cuts and amphetamines while regrouping for my next song 15 minutes later.

Come Monday, I'll ditch my guitar for a few days, don a suit and tie, and resume a bench trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Life is for living, my friends, and not even a Trump presidency will change that.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Tic Tac Trump

I've always counted on humor and music to help me through dark times, and for the past year I've leaned hard on both of those things to help me navigate the craziest presidential election in my lifetime.

I began writing this song, "Tic Tac Trump," on Sunday. I scratched out a verse and part of the chorus, and I then left those words alone for a couple of days. I returned to the "tremendous" scribbles on my yellow legal pad on Wednesday night, just a few hours before the debate. Drawing on sheer "stamina," I finished writing those lyrics. I finished them, "believe me." Minutes after the debate ended, I picked up my guitar and started recording.

A lawyer who writes songs is never without a yellow legal pad

My guitar-slingin' compadre Steve Doyle recorded his blistering Tele track the next morning, and I then quickly cobbled together a video for my musical farewell to Donald J. Trump.

Pickin' and grinnin' with the great Steve Doyle


(M. Farmer)

It was last July in Cleveland
When the circus came to town
And the GOP went and sold its soul
To a TV circus clown
Now weeks away from Election Day
The Trump Train’s off the rails
Thanks to Tic Tacs,
Billy Bush and Roger Ailes

So now his game is to pin the blame
On everyone but him
By talking up a conspiracy
That’s led by Carlos Slim
A billionaire from Mexico
Who somehow has the clout
To rig the race
And keep the Donald out

Hey, Donald Trump, time to hang it up
But thanks for stopping by
Your vision for America is never gonna fly
We won’t have to say “You’re fired”
‘Cause you damn sure won’t be hired
So pop a Tic-Tac
And kiss your ass goodbye

The Sunkist man with the spray-on tan
Has his back against the wall
And he’s blowin' up the whole neighborhood
Just to watch other people fall
And to those too weak to take a stand
Against what he’s said and done
We’ll remember you
The next time that you run

Hey, Donald Trump, time to hang it up
But thanks for stopping by
Your vision for America is never gonna fly
We won’t have to say “You’re fired”
‘Cause you damn sure won’t be hired
So pop a Tic-Tac
And kiss your ass goodbye

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Farewell to a Friend of the Working Man

The sleep was still in my eyes this morning when I learned that my friend Marv Gittler had passed away just a few hours into the new day. Marv was 77 years old.

The Chicago Sun-Times has already posted a thoughtful obituary for the man the paper rightly called a “prominent Chicago labor lawyer,” but when I heard the news about Marv’s passing today, the first thing that popped into my head was the nationally televised Bears-Seahawks game in October 2006.

Marv took me to a lot of Bears games over the years, and no matter how poorly the Bears played — and we sat through some awful games together — he and I always had a blast.

But early into the 2006 season, as the Bears were working their way back to the Super Bowl, Marv realized he had a conflict with the Week 4 game against Seattle. The night game fell on Yom Kippur, and Marv was going to be at temple with his family.

And since I'm the token Irish guy who, years earlier, had married into a big Jewish family (of which Marv was the de facto patriarch), he called me to see if I wanted his tickets to watch the still-undefeated Bears take on the formidable Seahawks. I told him I’d love to go, and he told me he’d have the tickets delivered to my office.

When the envelope arrived a few hours later, I opened it. Yes, the tickets were inside, but so, too, was a stern, handwritten admonition from Marv: "We're on a roll -- Don't fuck it up!"

It's ten years later and I still have his note. It's classic Marv Gittler.

A few weeks after that Bears victory over Seattle, the young-at-heart Marv and Carol Gittler were, as I recall, the only senior citizens hanging out at the Empty Bottle to hear me play music with my friends The Hoyle Brothers.

That same year, when my mug appeared on the front page of the Business section of the Wall Street Journal, Marv had the article framed and sent over to my office.

And I still have the note Marv sent me the following year, when he came across a story in the Illinois Labor History Society Reporter about my oldest daughter, who was then a student at Lincoln Park High School. My kid had fared well nationally in a 2007 history competition with her one-woman show about organized labor and the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. Marv, who was excited to see that a kid he knew was digging into labor history, took the time to send me the story along with a note: "Please tell Chelsea how proud I am."

When one of my family members went through some major medical challenges more than a decade ago, Marv met me for one of our many dinners together at Greek Islands (a favorite haunt of his), handed me a roll of cash during the meal, and told me to call him if we needed anything at all.

I could go on and on with these stories, and I've only known Marv since the late 1990s.

In May 2012, I was having lunch with CTU president Karen Lewis. She had asked me to speak, as a CPS parent, to thousands of teachers at an old-fashioned labor rally that was going to be held the next day at the Auditorium Theatre. While Karen and I were discussing the rally and the possibility of a strike that fall, I told her it would mean a lot to me if she would see fit to let Marv, who did not represent the CTU, crash her union's rally so that he could hear me speak.

Turns out Karen and Marv were members of the same temple in Hyde Park (Marv and I sat in the same pew at Karen's bat mitzvah in 2013), so Karen and I phoned Marv from the restaurant, invited him to the rally, and the next day Marv had a seat just a few feet from the stage.

I was thrilled to be able to share a bit of my hell-raising on behalf of workers with a guy who'd been doing it for more years than I'd been alive.

Dementia is a bitch, and when it hits a guy with a legal mind and a sense of humor like Marv's, it's doubly painful.

Last year, when Marv's deteriorating condition required him to retire, his firm threw him a party.

Jim Franczek, one of Marv's closest friends, who also happens to be a management-side labor lawyer from another Chicago firm, gave a heartfelt talk at that party about his old pal, and it brought tears to my eyes.

I got to know Jim when he and I tried a federal case against each other in 2013. His client, the Chicago Board of Education, was trying to close more than 50 public schools; my clients, two groups of students who would be adversely affected by those closings, opposed that decision.

Jim figured out early on that Marv and I were tight, and Jim and I got along well during the trial, and we still do today. As a lawyer, I try to follow the example set by Jim and Marv over the decades. Represent your clients zealously, but do your best to get along with the lawyers on the other side of the table.

The last time I saw Marv alive was on Sunday, August 28, at his home in Union Pier, Michigan. His wife, Carol, was next to him, along with several of their terrific daughters and grandkids.

Across the table from Marv, once again, was his longtime labor adversary and longtime friend Jim Franczek, along with his wife, Debbie.

Marv seemed to be at peace.

I'll miss you, buddy.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Trump's America

Dear Chicago Protesters,

Sorry I couldn't be with you yesterday at the University of Illinois at Chicago to "greet" Donald Trump, but I was stuck taking a deposition that had been scheduled weeks earlier. In any event, congratulations to all of you for letting Mr. Trump know that his race-baiting and bullying won't fly in Chicago.

After I got home last night, I caught the tail-end of the UIC event on CNN. An hour later, I began recording this song, which I had started writing earlier in the week. My good buddy and longtime music compadre Steve Doyle took time out of his busy Saturday morning to lay down his electric guitar track. (Thank you, brother.)

The spark for this song comes from Mr. Trump's tired slogan -- recycled from a Reagan campaign -- "Make America Great Again."

Whenever I hear that line, I ask myself what period of greatness Mr. Trump wants us to revisit? The Ozzie & Harriet years? The Reagan era? The Dred Scott days?

Those were tough stretches for entire groups of Americans who simply happened to have the "wrong" color skin, the "wrong" ethnic background, or the "wrong" sexual orientation. But what the hell, every candidate needs a slogan.

Again, thanks for filling the streets last night, Chicago. I hope you enjoy my song.

In solidarity,

Matt Farmer

Trump's America
(M. Farmer)

In a Trump t-shirt and a bright red hat
He stopped me outside of the laundromat
And said, "Howdy, brother, would you like to join our fight?"

He said, "We need to take this country back
From those godless gays and the brown and the black,
Can you help Mr. Trump as he tries to make things right?

"He's gonna build our nation a great big wall
And get Mexico to pay for it all
'Cause he's a businessman who knows how to get things done

"He’ll keep out the drugs and Mexican rapists
ISIS thugs and no-‘count papists
And make America safe for everyone”

And then that man in the red hat looked me straight in the eye and said, “Are you with us, brother? Will you help Mr. Trump make America great again?"

Well, I could barely contain myself, but I paused, took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts . . . and then I asked him a couple of questions . . .

Before you make America great again
Can you take a moment and remind me when
That greatness stretched from sea to shining sea?

‘Cause I know all about the Jim Crow years,
The Stonewall raid, and the Trail of Tears
And the strange fruit hanging from a poplar tree

Was our country really at its best
When internment camps filled the Great Northwest
Or when old man Daley busted heads back in ’68?

This nation's always worked well for some
But it’ll never be great for everyone
If it’s run by a man who encourages fear and hate

Well, that threw him for a loop
But truth be told, I was just getting started . . .

I said your man’s a bully and a carnival barker
Peddlin' fear of folks whose skin’s a bit darker
Than that crazy shade of orange that he likes to wear

Sellin’ Trump University class online
Along with steak, water, and vanity wine
And Lord don't even get me started on that yellow hair

And I won’t even bother tryin' to hide my scorn
About his crazy claim that there’s a Kenyan-born
Man in the office that he’s now tryin’ to win

So if two Corinthians ever walk in a bar
And ask how our nation has fallen so far
Tell ‘em President Trump was the guy who did us in

Before you make America great again
Can you take a moment and remind me when
That greatness stretched from sea to shining sea?

‘Cause I know all about Hoover’s FBI
COINTELPRO and the need to spy
On folks who fought and died just to be free

Was our country really at its best
When you paid a poll tax and had to pass a test
If you were black and wanted to vote in a Southern state?

This nation’s always worked well for some
But it’ll never be great for everyone
If it’s run by a man who encourages fear and hate

So go vote for someone else before it's too late

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Making an "Impression"

I had lunch a few months ago with one of my lawyer friends at a downtown Potbelly Sandwich Shop. While we were waiting in line, my friend pointed to a 20-something guy with an acoustic guitar who was singing songs to the noon-time crowd.

"Farmer," he joked, "that should be your gig."

"Been there, done that," I replied.


"As recently as last December," I said.


I then explained to my friend how I, a middle-aged lawyer, ended up playing the Potbelly gig, albeit at a different location.

In 2013 and 2014 I practiced law in a downtown office building that housed several restaurants on its lower level. Potbelly was the joint I hit on a regular basis.

I always talked with the folks who were making my sandwiches, and one afternoon the conversation turned to music.

Jerry Butler's "He Will Break Your Heart" was playing on the store's sound system, and I was shocked to see one of the young men behind the counter singing along during the chorus. I asked him if he knew that the guys who wrote that song -- Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield -- grew up in Cabrini-Green.

He was surprised to hear that, and we talked a bit more about Butler and Mayfield.

The store manager was standing just a few feet away. He asked me why I knew so much about old music. I told him it was a hobby.

I also told him that I kept a guitar in my office upstairs, and I'd be happy to bring it down and play that Jerry Butler hit, along with a bunch of other great tunes, anytime he wanted an old guy to entertain his lunch crowd. Once he realized I was serious, he told me to pick a date.

And that's how I ended up doing the occasional Potbelly gig.

The last time I played the store was December 30, 2014. That afternoon, I told the manager that I was going to leave my law firm in a few weeks. I wished him well because I knew I probably wouldn't see him much in 2015.

Yesterday, while scrolling through a 2014 calendar, I saw an entry for that lunchtime gig.

That got me thinking. I've played very little music this month, and the year is quickly coming to an end . . .

So I shot my store manager buddy an email and told him we were sneaking up on the one-year anniversary of that December 30 gig. I suggested we should make it a holiday tradition.

He was game. So tomorrow, on December 30, 2015, I'll grab a guitar and do my best to entertain his customers.

Life is for living.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Little Milton and Hurricane Katrina

Make no mistake. It was soul man Little Milton Campbell who broke the ice inside of that silver Nissan Altima as it sped north out of Houston on a hot September night 10 years ago.

Quite a feat, really, since Little Milton had been dead for almost a month.

But with just one question from the old guy in the back seat of my car, our 600-mile drive got a lot easier.

“Matt, is that Little Milton singing?”

“Yes, sir. The one and only.”

“What in the world are you doing listening to Little Milton?”

My longtime buddy Billy Dawson, who was riding shotgun, let out a laugh. And so began my friendship with James Williams, the Little Milton fan stretched out across my back seat.

Billy and I had met James inside the Houston Astrodome just a few hours earlier. He was 61 years old and built like an NFL tight end from another era. Shortly after the three of us met, James walked silently out of the arena with Billy and me, clutching only a small plastic grocery bag that contained some medicine and personal effects.

I still don’t know what he was thinking as he got into the car with two absolute strangers — a pair of 40-something Chicagoans, one black and one white — who had promised to drive him to Memphis, where his 95-year-old mother lived, but I’m sure he quickly sized us up and decided we were a safe bet.

A couple days earlier, James, along with one of his favorite New Orleans neighbors, boarded a crowded bus outside the Superdome, only to wind up in Houston, along with thousands of other Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Around that same time, I had called Billy and told him I was losing my mind watching cable news coverage of the Crescent City flood. I had decided to drive to Houston to help with ongoing relief efforts. I told Billy I was going to leave that evening, and I invited him to join me.

Two hours later, I picked him up at his Kenwood apartment and we began our 1100-mile drive to the building once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World.

We had no return date, no place to stay, and no guarantee that we’d even be allowed into the Astrodome, but we were fast talkers and those were minor details.

I knew things were going our way when, after 12 hours of exceeding every applicable speed limit, a small-town cop in Texas let us off with a warning after I told him we’d been driving through the night from Chicago to get to the Astrodome.

When we finally arrived at the arena, a Houston cop initially denied us entry into the stadium parking lot. I did my best to channel John Belushi’s off-the-cuff story from The Blues Brothers, where he quickly flashed an ID and claimed to be Jacob Stein from the American Federation of Musicians.

I pulled out an Illinois attorney ID, popped my trunk to show the officer some relief supplies we’d brought from Illinois, and I quickly mentioned the names of one or two Houston lawyers I knew.

And just like that, we were in.

But neither one of us was prepared for what we were about to see — thousands of people, mostly black, occupying cots and stadium seats in the building where Billy “White Shoes” Johnson once returned kickoffs for the Oilers. The one-time Eighth Wonder of the World had become, for all practical purposes, an American refugee camp.

Billy and I quickly went to work wherever we could lend a hand. I’ll never forget meeting an anxious New Orleans grandmother who was by herself and having no luck locating any of her family members. She was distraught but still made it a point to give me a big hug and thank me for driving down from Chicago. She told me that my effort meant a lot to her. She had no idea where her family had ended up, but she found time to thank me. Go figure.

I experienced that type of kindness over and over again inside the Astrodome.

At some point in the evening, Billy and I had to come up with a lodging plan. We’d been doing some work alongside a nurse volunteer from the city’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She’d recently moved to Houston from Jamaica.

She was trying to make heads-or-tails of our story. Two middle-age guys from Chicago drove through the night to Houston with no real plan and no place to sleep? She made a joke about us possibly being ax murderers before inviting us to stay at her house.

To this day, I’m convinced Billy’s dreadlocks helped get that deal done.

It was an unsettling feeling leaving the Astrodome to sleep in a stranger’s comfortable home in Houston, knowing that thousands of people were going to be on cots for many nights to come, but it was also another act of kindness that I appreciated.

The next day, more evacuees arrived at the Astrodome, and Billy and I did what we could to help them.

Later that afternoon I decided that we should offer to drive some evacuees to Memphis, St. Louis or Chicago — three cities we would hit on our way home. I bought some poster board and markers and made a sign indicating that we could drive up to three people to one of those destinations. I then spent an hour walking the floor of the Astrodome holding that sign above my head.

[Advertising for riders headed to Memphis, St. Louis or Chicago -- all photos courtesy of Billy Dawson.]

A young woman stopped me to ask about my offer. She told me she was there with one of her New Orleans neighbors and said that her neighbor’s mother lived in Memphis. She asked if she could have a few minutes to see whether that neighbor, James Williams, might be interested in making the drive with us.

James signed on, but Billy and I found no other takers, so early that evening the three of us walked out of the Astrodome and hit the highway.

With Houston in my rearview mirror, I made two quick stops. We needed dinner and James needed some threads. There was no way I was going to deliver Mr. Williams to his 95 year-old mother unless he had at least a week’s worth of clothes.

Retail options were limited on Saturday night, but I did manage to find a Walmart that was still open. Billy and I pushed shopping carts through that store like we were contestants on a game show spree. Quickly asking James for his shoe size, belt size, shirt size and favorite colors, we loaded up carts that would allow him to get around Memphis for a bit without having to worry about his wardrobe. Lord knows he had plenty of other things to worry about.

During our meal and our shopping blitz, James was polite to a fault, but he didn’t have a whole lot to say — until I popped a Little Milton CD into my car stereo.

That’s when the conversation got going. At that point, we became three music lovers making a 10-hour road trip to Memphis.

I’ve stayed in touch with James since we met at the Astrodome. I’ve visited him in Memphis, and he’s stayed with my family and me in Chicago. He’s now 71 years old, and his mom just celebrated her 105th birthday.

He’s been back to New Orleans three times since the flood (for a wedding, a funeral and a family reunion), but he’s told me he’ll never live there again. His old neighborhood is one that’s been left in disrepair.

If all goes according to plan, James and I will again spend some time together next week. I’ve been promising my 13-year-old daughter a trip to Sun Studio and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and there’s no time like the present.


On August 30, 2015, my youngest daughter (not pictured) and I had dinner with James in Memphis. We had a ball -- along with some great banana pudding and peanut butter pie for dessert.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Guitar Lawyer

[This piece was originally published by The Third City on May 17, 2015.]

I’ve had the privilege over the years of visiting many classrooms to speak with students around the city. Whether I’m talking to grade-school kids or graduate students, I always look forward to the challenge, and I do my best to make sure the students get something out of it.

When I left my house Thursday morning to meet a buddy downtown for a casual lunch, I had no idea I’d find myself later that afternoon addressing students in a classroom at Northwestern University School of Law.

I certainly wasn’t dressed for success, sporting blue jeans, a red and black lumberjack flannel shirt, and a grey hooded sweatshirt. I did, however, smartly accessorize that look with both the heavy-duty, black plastic knee brace I’ve been wearing since February (when my kneecap was surgically reattached to my shinbone) and the acoustic guitar in a black nylon travel case that I’d slung over my right shoulder.

All in all, I looked, on that particular day, like the kind of guy who might get tossed out of a law school for trespassing.

My plan was to grab a sandwich with my friend and then wander over to the Magnificent Mile to spend part of a beautiful spring afternoon busking on a North Michigan Avenue street corner.

I’ve always found it a blast to work as a street musician. You plant your musical flag on a city sidewalk and let the chips fall where they may.

Twenty-three years ago, when I was still in law school, I spent a summer working for a large firm that specialized in trial work. The woman in charge of hiring once introduced me to several of her partners by saying, “I knew we needed to hire Matt after he told me that he played music in the subways. If you know how to work that crowd, you’re well on your way to becoming a good trial lawyer.”

She understood. You need to be comfortable engaging absolute strangers who may not look like you, live like you, or view the world like you.

In any event, after lunch I decided to plant my musical flag near the corner of Michigan and Erie, near the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique. Forty-five minutes into my set, while playing Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” I noticed three guys sizing me up from about ten feet away. They looked harmless. One was even nodding his head in time to the music.

They kept their distance until I finished my next song, Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” at which point they approached me.

The group’s spokesman introduced himself as Sergei. He had a thick Russian accent, but spoke English fluently. He told me he enjoyed my singing and playing and wondered whether I would be interested in performing at a nearby event in an hour.

We talked for a few minutes and I learned that the event in question was at Northwestern’s law school, where Sergei and his friends were students. He told me that as part of a year-end assignment, he was supposed to venture out into the city and negotiate a deal to bring someone — a bartender, an alderman, a circus clown — to the school to speak to, or perform for, his class.

Sergei never talked down to me. He was a gentleman. He also had no idea that I was a trial lawyer, albeit a currently unemployed one. Sergei and I hammered out our little deal in about two minutes. In exchange for a nominal sum, I’d hobble over to his school in an hour to perform a couple of tunes for his classmates. Sergei didn’t realize that I was heading to his law school not for the pittance we’d just “negotiated,” but for a chance to talk briefly to some soon-to-be lawyers.

I then spent another 45 minutes regaling the Michigan Avenue crowd with three-minute ditties about broken hearts, fast cars, and life in prison.

Once I got to the law school, Sergei helped me with my gear and asked me to wait outside the classroom for a few minutes until it was time for me to play.

When it came time for him to bring me in, he introduced me to his roughly three dozen classmates with gracious words. Before strumming my first chord, I asked the students how many of them wanted to try cases. A few hands went up.

I then played a song.

After that, I believe I surprised the class — though perhaps not the teacher, whom I actually knew — by stepping out of my role as a limping, middle-aged street musician.

I told them that I began with a question about trying cases because young lawyers need to know that it’s important not to lock yourself into preconceived notions about people when you pick a jury. The same rule applies when you’re sitting across the table from a relative stranger during a negotiation.

I explained that when Sergei negotiated his deal with me, he had no idea that I was an attorney, much less one who had negotiated (on the defense side) many multi-million dollar settlements.

And why should he have known that? I certainly didn’t expect him to notice during our brief exchange on Michigan Avenue that the lanyard I was wearing — the one that holds my City of Chicago street musician license — was a National Institute of Trial Advocacy faculty lanyard.

I then told the class that I left my job in late January, immediately blew out my knee, and was now on the mend and back in the job market.

I spoke for a few more minutes, but my main point to the students was simple. When you get out into the legal world, treat people with decency, just as Sergei did. And remember to keep an open mind in your dealings with others. Things aren’t always what they seem.

I then played one more song before heading home to put ice on my left knee.

The Unemployment Diaries: Part Two

[This piece was originally published by The Third City on February 8, 2015.]

A few hours after I injured myself shooting hoops at a local YMCA, emergency room doctors at a nearby hospital sent me across the street to see an orthopedic surgeon, who quickly sized up the situation after examining my multi-colored, grapefruit-sized left knee. The surgeon was confident I’d ruptured my patellar tendon, a diagnosis confirmed by an MRI scan a couple days later.

The doc and I then talked surgery and rehabilitation. He told me he operates on Mondays and Thursdays, and he suggested we schedule the procedure for the Thursday after the Super Bowl.

I sat quietly on his exam table, still in my basketball clothes, staring down at my bulbous kneecap, which, no longer tethered to my left tibia, was now in a place it wasn’t supposed to be.

I’d not yet figured out how I was going to make it up five steps to the front door of my house that evening, much less negotiate an additional flight of stairs to my bed. Nor had I wrapped my brain around months of rehab. I’d even managed to block from my mind — if only for a few moments — the fact that I was now (voluntarily) unemployed, having given notice to my old boss earlier in the month.

But the one thing I did know was that I wasn’t having surgery that Thursday.

“Doc,” I asked, “can we push the surgery off a few days until the following Monday? Would that short delay be bad for my knee?”

“Is there a problem?”

“No problem. It’s just that I have a gig.”

Yes, that’s where my head was at that particular moment in time.

In early December I’d agreed to play music at a February 5 fundraiser for Raise Your Hand, a grassroots coalition of parents who advocate for quality public education. It’s a group near and dear to my heart.

I’d even lined up a couple of my good friends to play and sing with me that night, and I was looking forward to the event.

(Pre-surgery Raise Your Hand gig with Brian Wilkie and Diana Laffey)

I also realized, while talking to the surgeon, that it would likely be months before I could again play music with my friends in neighborhood bars. And having shot what was almost certainly my last jump shot earlier that day, I wasn’t about to let an upcoming music gig slip away without a fight.

As it turned out, my surgeon signed off on the short delay. He then prescribed a leg brace to immobilize my knee and some painkillers for my Elvis Presley Pez dispenser.

The following week, my buddy Brian Wilkie, one of the city’s best guitarists, drove me to and from the Raise Your Hand gig, loading and unloading all my gear. Anyone who has heard Brian play knows that in a just world he’d be performing on big stages in Nashville or New York; instead, my friend spent the Thursday after the Super Bowl helping me get through the evening. (By the way, that prescription leg brace cost me more than the Gretsch guitar I played at the gig that night.)

Let the doc do his cutting on Monday. Last Thursday night I needed to pop pills and play rock-n-roll.

Life is for living.