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