Sunday, April 22, 2018

Whitey O'Day: A Remembrance

“Matt, I’m having trouble remembering how to play a C chord on my guitar. Where do I put my first two fingers? And can you remind me how the first verse of King Of The Road goes?” When my cell phone rang on a Saturday afternoon last July, and I saw that it was my old friend Whitey O’Day calling, I did not expect our conversation to begin with those questions.

After all, when I first met Whitey, in a Lincoln Park tavern in the fall of 1982, I watched him hold a Saturday night barroom crowd in the palm of his hand, using only his acoustic guitar, his encyclopedic knowledge of old songs, and (of course) his captivating charm and wit.

I was a sophomore at Northwestern University at that time. I’d not yet started playing guitar, but I was already a music geek, who spent way too much time and money in local record stores. Walking into that bar in 1982 with several of my college buddies, I had no idea I was about to begin a friendship that would last 35 years, much less one that would inspire me to become an occasional barroom singer.

What I quickly figured out that night from my table ten feet from the stage at Irish Eyes was that Whitey O’Day knew how to work a room. He wasn’t a virtuoso guitarist, and he didn’t possess an other-worldly vocal range, but he definitely had a gift, and it was a gift I watched him employ reflexively at bars, festivals, and private parties over the years, even after recent health issues triggered a decline in his music skills.

If you were in the crowd at one of Whitey's gigs, he’d always make it a point to say hello during a break. He’d also remember your name, and he’d ask whether there was something he could play for you. If he knew the song you requested (usually a safe bet), he’d hit it early in the next set, and he’d generally give you a nod in the process: “Let’s do one for Jim over there, who wants to hear something by the late Don Gibson . . . “

And you could take it to the bank that the next time Jim wandered into one of Whitey’s gigs, Whitey would remember him: “Jim, good to see you, my friend; we’ll have to do some Don Gibson for you in a few minutes.”

And that, from my perspective, was the magic of Whitey O’Day. He made people feel at home in a tavern by making sure there was no wall between him and his audience. He was able to do that because he was a genuinely nice guy, who enjoyed the challenge of making a friend out of every stranger who entered the bar.

After my first night at Irish Eyes, my college friends and I continued to make the occasional pilgrimage to Lincoln Park to see Whitey. To eliminate our CTA commute, however, I made it a point to book some gigs for him on campus. He appreciated the work, and he and I often ended up grabbing a post-gig breakfast at 2 a.m. at a nearby pancake house. It was during those late-night chats that we got to know each other a little better.

About a year after I finished college, I told Whitey I’d recently started playing guitar. I’d been learning on a friend’s instrument, but I was now in the market for one of my own. As it turned out, Whitey was looking to unload one of his guitars, and he gave me a great deal on an Ovation Legend, which I played for many years.

In the mid-1990s, after I felt comfortable playing and singing in front of people, Whitey invited me to play a few tunes during a break at one of his gigs. I greatly appreciated that opportunity. I must have held my own that night because after my first mini-performance, he always invited me back to the stage, whenever I popped in to see him.

Years later, I began playing gigs of my own, eventually getting to work with some incredibly talented Chicago musicians. At that point, if Whitey had a night off and I had a gig, he’d frequently stop by and sit in, and I always got a big kick out of that. Unlike me, Whitey worked primarily as a solo act. And I’m confident he loved sitting in with me because it meant he’d be accompanied by my buddy Steve Doyle (pictured below, blonde Telecaster in hand), one of the city’s best guitar players, on whatever old tunes he sang for my crowd. Whitey absolutely loved Steve’s playing.

The years eventually caught up with Whitey, as they do with all of us. Problems with his feet made it difficult for him to walk and even more difficult for him to lug musical equipment, but it was a pair of recent strokes that made it increasingly hard for Whitey to do what he really loved to do — play and sing for people on barstools.

After his second stroke, in April 2017, I stopped by the Glenview rehab facility where he was staying. I brought a guitar with me because I wanted to test his memory and his motor skills. (After his first stroke, he began playing gigs with a songbook; the lyrics that had always been second nature to him were no longer on the tip of his tongue.) I wheeled him out of his room and down to the building’s lobby. We set up shop in a corner, I played my guitar — he was unable to do so — and we sang. I called out songs that he’d sung thousands of times before. At first, we kept our volume low. Finally, I said, “The hell with it, Whitey; let’s do this like we mean it.”

At that, he and I began singing like we were again entertaining at a local bar. The lyrics occasionally escaped him, but Whitey and I soldiered on, as patients and their families quickly gathered around to listen. They applauded and requested songs. We played and sang for almost an hour, and Whitey had a smile on his face throughout the afternoon. Over the next few months, he told me many times how much that day meant to him. I told him that I always enjoyed the opportunity to play music with him.

Then came the July phone conversation during which it became clear to me that Whitey’s guitar playing days were likely over. When he told me he couldn’t remember how to finger a C chord or sing King Of The Road, I told him not to worry. Recovery takes time, I said. It was only then that he explained he’d booked a three-hour gig at Hackney’s for the following week. Whitey had been playing at Hackney’s since Reagan was in the White House, and now that he was out of rehab he wanted to start working again.

Given our conversation that day, I knew he’d have trouble with even a fifteen-minute gig. I asked him if he’d like me to accompany him at Hackney’s. That way, he wouldn’t have to worry about playing the guitar, and he could focus on his singing and on his (still-adoring) fans. He told me that would be a big help. I brought my PA system because I didn’t want him to have to carry anything.

We ham-and-egged our way through the gig, but it was tough for me to see my friend struggle that night to do what he’d done so well for decades. We talked at length several times over the next few weeks about some strategies for relearning the guitar.

I did my last Hackney’s gig with him in January 2018, and it was a rough night. Whitey desperately wanted to be back on the circuit, picking and singing for his longtime friends and fans, but his battered body did not want to cooperate.

Whitey passed away on Saturday, April 21. He was 76 years old. There won’t be a gig I play, right up to the time someone takes the guitar out of my hands, when I don’t think of Whitey.

See you on the ice, brother.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Going Down In Flames (Lookin' Bad)

Writing and recording songs about the current occupant of the White House has become a coping mechanism for me. Unfortunately, the level of crazy in this administration is so high that this week's scandals will likely be old news by the time next week's scandals hit. In any event, for my latest musical exercise, I adapted a song that's nearly 100 years old. Special thanks to my good friends Steve Doyle (dobro), Bob Perlstein (banjo), and The Stormettes -- a/k/a Annalee Koehn and Ruby McDougal -- (harmony vocals) for contributing their talents to this recording.

(Lyrics by M. Farmer)

I'm going down in flames, it’s looking bad
I got Mueller, Stormy, Manafort and Vlad
I'm going down in flames, it’s looking bad, now Lord
I ain't gonna be treated this way

Them lawyers just don’t want to work for me
‘Cuz I don’t listen, and I rarely pay their fee
Them lawyers just don’t want to work for me, now Lord
I ain't gonna be treated this way

My fixer needs a fixer of his own
He paid Stormy with a home equity loan
My fixer needs a fixer of his own, now Lord
He ain't gonna be treated this way

You can spank me with an old magazine
Just don't talk about the things you might have seen
You can spank me with an old magazine, now Lord
‘Cuz The Donald actually loves being treated that way

I make my women sign an NDA
And I might even offer them a little pay
I make my women sign an NDA, now Lord
I ain't gonna be treated this way


I'll make adultery great again, you'll see
And I got a little thing for Russian pee
I'll make adultery great again, you'll see, now Lord
I ain't gonna be treated this way

When things get bad I holler Fake News
And turn on Fox & Friends to shape my global views
When things get bad I holler Fake News, now Lord
I ain't gonna be treated this way

Y’all know how this thing is gonna end
I’m gonna pardon each and every tight-lipped friend
Y’all know how this thing is gonna end, now Lord
I ain't gonna be treated this way


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.