Jesus of Chicago

Jesus of ChicagoI just got back from Maine–Rockland, Maine.  One of those beautiful, bucolic towns that Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, and three generations of Wyeths found so seductive.  It isn’t hard to see why.  The air is clean and you can smell the Atlantic Ocean on the light breezes anywhere in this town.  It is lush and green and there is a brittle, yet sweet, edge to its citizens who describe their weather as, “Nine months of wintah. . .and  three months bad sleddin’.”

They are tough, self-reliant Yankee stock who are always aware that the landscape is friend and enemy, and that the land gives and gives.  This is a fishing town; the best lobster you’ve ever eaten, Pennequit oysters that are a tad salty and deliciously briny, served up with a cocktail sauce that has a bit of a kick to it.

Best of all, are the people. . .a great many of them from somewhere else  who have to prove their mettle to be considered Mainers.  Maine is a proud state.  During the Civil War, the fighting Maine lost more men  than almost any other state, despite there being pockets of southern sympathizers in towns like Camden.  The Maine fighting men were ferocious and defiantly Yankee.  The Maine sense of humor is a contrary one.  You have to be able to take some ribbing to fit in there.  They are  a no-bullshit kind of culture.  The lobster men are for real, no-shit, tough guys.  Cock off to one of them at your own peril. “You’ll be wearin’ yah ass for a hat” if you wise-ass one of the denizens of the Time Out; a road-house style joint right on the water, favored by lobster men and  the heartier townies.

Up the road a bit is Camden.  There is a store that sells the only thing I collect well; carved and painted wooden birds.  The store is called The Duck Trap and there are all manner of carved songbirds and waterfowl. The two older women who run the place can tell you about every carving in the place.  I bought a couple by a 92-year old guy who just whittles them and paints them with a regular pocket whittling knife.  Stan Sparre, is the gentlman’s name, and when you get one of his birds you know that someone who genuinely loves birds made this thing.  They are not perfect; no truly beautiful thing is.  They are  approximate and rendered and cut the way he sees them.  They are his birds and I know how that goes.

My show went beautifully.  It was installed with care.  The young dealer, Jake Dowling, and his wife, Mare gave us a beautiful preview and a lovely opening and the people of Rockland, Maine could not have treated me better.

Afterward, both nights, we retreated to one of those great Irish bars that had the best food I’ve ever had in a saloon; great oysters, lobster rolls, and haddock; a joint called Billy’s Tavern in Thomaston, Maine owned and presided over by two generations of the Burke men–Billy, the father and Chris, the son.  Billy reminded me so much of my father that the first night I spent most of the night on the back lot of the place talking to him and watching the other patrons play bocce.  Yeah, it’s that kind of place.  It always has a great quartet of jazz guys and in the backyard you can play bocce and smoke and have good conversations.  And for a saloon, nobody was drunk.  It isn’t that kind of place, as odd as that may sound.

I got up this morning and boarded the plane home, back to my city of bricks and iron and cruel boundaries.  It is home and I love it for its imperfections as well as its graces; but once in a while, I can imagine a life somewhere else; where winter isn’t as brutal, where the differences between have and have not are not so bitterly apparent. . .where wrought-iron fences are erected to keep the precious things in, rather than the feared things out.  There are churches everywhere in my city and everyone believes in god and nobody believes in each other.  This piece is about that thought.

Published in: on May 30, 2010 at 12:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Drawing for the Jazz Baroness

Drawing for the Jazz BaronessShe was born a Rothschild, an heiress of one of Europe’s great fortunes.  The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter or “Nica” to her friends  in the world of jazz, was a darkly beautiful, worldly muse to some of bebop’s titans; Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane to name a few.  Charlie Parker, in fact, died in her apartment in New York’s Stanhope Hotel in 1955.   A scandalous and racist new media back then covered the jazz great’s passing with the salacious glee that the forbidden taboo fantasy of a famous black man and infamous white woman narrative would allow.  This story was catnip for the local media, underlining the repulsion/attraction dynamic between the races that was at the heart of the fear and hatred so rampant in our country in the 50’s.  It was this very narrative that got the young Emmet Till murdered in the south.

Nica was a fearless supporter of jazz, often driving Monk and Parker to their respective gigs.  She did not give a fuck what anyone thought of her. Her support was total.  Thelonious Monk, in the final years of his life, lived in her home, with her and something like 300 cats.  She was a sucker for stray cats and a supporter of powerless musicians against a racist system that kept them poor and uncelebrated in many cases until after their deaths.

There is a lovely documentary about her, produced by HBO films, called The Jazz Baroness, that was made by her neice.

Her niece recalls meeting the Baroness at a club in New York and informing her aunt that, “There are tramps drinking in your Bentley.” Nica’s retort was, “Good, Darling.  Hopefully, they will be to drunk to steal it.”

One must love a person like that.

My pal and partner in FireCat Projects, Stan Klein, is the guy who gave me the Baroness’s book, Three Wishes, a marvelous collection of little-seen photographs of some of jazz’s greatest, that are sometimes startling in their intimacy.  The theme of the book was Nica’s asking each jazz great what their three wishes would be.  Some of the answers are predictable–more money,  more pussy,  more respect.  Some are hysterically funny.  Louis Armstrong wishing to avoid constipation  (from Gary Giddin’s splendid biography, I know this was a big preoccupation with Satchmo), Dick Katz wishing drummers should not be allowed to play as loud as horn players.  Some responses are heart-breaking, like Art Farmer’s: “There is only one wish…to like myself.”   Some are utopian. Stan Getz wishes: “Justice.  Truth.  Beauty.”

It is one of those books I’ll always treasure;  an odd collection of misshapen pearls that somehow hang together and make something irreplacable and beautiful.

I’m grateful to Stan for reintroducing me to jazz.  I don’t know enough about it, other than its genesis is one of those things we continue to owe to the great city of New Orleans; more specifically, to the 40 square blocks of whore-houses known as Storyville.  Stan is a patient guy.  He endures the ear-splitting decibels of ZZ Top, Pixies, Hendrix and AC/DC I sometimes need to get through the day.  He smiles  his former-school-teacher’s smile and endures.

He is also a sneaky motherfucker, who brings the best R&B, soul and jazz in and gets me hooked on it.  I can’t go a week without hearing Fontella Bass’s, “Rescue Me” or Billie Holiday and Lester Young’s love duet, “Lover Man.”  For me, these songs are all part of a larger narrative of American music that makes brothers and sisters of all of us.

Published in: on May 24, 2010 at 4:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Bop Joint (The Doorman’s Dream)

The Bop Joint (The Doorman's Dream)When I was younger, for a few years there, I damn-near made a career out of being a doorman.  I worked strip joints, blues bars, nightclubs, bar/restaurants and neighborhood saloons.  I never got to work at a jazz club, which would have been great.  In my teens, I had a friend named Steve Best who really knew his jazz.  He introduced me to Bird, Trane, Miles Davis, and the great singer, Johnny Hartmann.  Until then, I was  only a rock and roll and soul music fan.  Jazz was a whole new discordant and rebellious language to me.  I wanted to know more.  I was forever pestering Joe Segal at Jazz Showcase to let me work the door and, trusting his better judgment, he never hired me which was probably for the best.

I never did lose my hankering for jazz.  In New Orleans, I got to hear a lot of it; the King Oliver stuff and some pretty fair renditions of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, but I never really acheived anything like a conniseur’s knowledge of it.  I’m still now always hearing things I’ve never heard before that have been around forever.   It’s something that, as I grow older, I like more and more; not to the point of snobbishness or dismissing everything else in favor of, though.   I love hip-hop, rap, techno; the music my kids listen to, and I still spend lots of time listening to the slow-jam soul music I grew up with.  I love real country and salsa and all other manner of musical idioms as well.  It has always made my wheels turn visually.

I loved being a doorman at music venues years ago.  I got to see shows for free and watch people enjoy music.  Some years ago, I took my son to an all-ages ska show at Metro and got a great deal of joy watching him and his friends enjoy four different ska bands.  The show was headlined by Mustard Plug, a ska outfit that’d been around forever who played with a vengence music about being young, stupid and rebellious and it was fun.

When I was a doorman, I always took great care to go easy on kids who’d had too much to drink or were out of their element or got into shoving matches.  It is a more complex job than people might think.  A careful diplomacy is the best M.O. for this job and being able to read a crowd and spot trouble before it happens.  the restaurant-bars were actually, in my experience, the most dangerous. The middle-aged guys in bomber jackets  trying to bang cheerleaders were the guys who were least predictable and for some reason, the ones with the most to prove.

A townie bar in Urbana, Illinois was the scariest place I ever worked.  A mutant mouth breather named Daskell once tried to brain me with a half cinder block while my back was turned.  It was a rough joint full of bikers and guys who’d been laid off from International Harvester and I was scared every night of my life when I worked there.   I learned a lot there; when to take a guy’s keys, the gentle art of cutting people off,  and how to protect drunk girls from the scummy types.

In every place I worked there were juke boxes with a few jazz records to play at the end of the night.  There was a Maceo Parker song I loved hearing at the end of each night; a beautiful piece called, Children’s World‘ where Maceo works his slow, low, saxaphone magic so  sublimely, it lulls one into sleep.  This piece is about how that record makes me feel.

Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sayaka’s Fish

Sayaka's FishHey–

When I travel , I try to use my ears and eyes more than anything else, and let a smile be my passport. Last year when I went to Tokyo, I went not knowing a word of Japanese.  I also had only the part-time company of a person who did speak the language.  She was a Japanese housewwife and lovely friend of a friend, who was under the impression that me and my friends wanted to mostly go to the shopping districts, which we didn’t really want to do so much.  For one full day we ran to keep up with her through Harajuku as she moved very quickly and I found myself missing the stuff I wanted to linger over and see.  She was unfailingly kind and polite; but she ran us like sled dogs.

The next day I went off by myself.  I got directions to the Ameyoko market from a lovely young woman named Sayaka who worked at the hotel.  She made sure that I knew where everything was and how to get there, often accompanying me to the taxi and giving him instructions as well.  She directed me to Jingu Stadium, Ueno Park, the Ginza district and anywhere else I was curious about.

She would not accept any kind of gratuity, as this is not part of the Japanese culture.  In fact, people can get insulted at the idea.  I gave her a book of my work and some buttons with details from my drawings on them.  The Japanese are big collectors of “flair“; buttons, pendants and little decorative details.  She was delighted by these things and went out of her way to help me navigate her city.

At night I often could not sleep so I would hang out in the lobby and smoke and read and write in my diary.  Sayaka always made sure I could get tea at night and in one case found me a Japanese sleeping tea that really helped.  We had funny conversations about our countries, even though neither of us spoke a word of the other’s language.  After seven or eight days of the best sushi on the planet, she pointed us to the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in Japan.  She was a real friend to me and my crew of friends who accompanied me there.  A few days after I got back, I sent some etchings of bugs for her and her friends at the hotel, for their kindness.

About a month later I got a big box full of treats, including a  Hiroshima Carps baseball hat because I’d not been able to find one big enough for my giant head. I looked for days and it is one of my most treasured things.   I’ll go back to Japan in September; specifically Tokyo.  I love the kind of work I make about this place; the joy of it, the magic, and the memory of the kindnesses  bestowed upon me there.

Published in: on May 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Songbird for Moe Dalitz

Songbird for Moe Dalitz

“We’re bigger than US Steel. -Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER II

There is a scene in the movie Bugsy, in which Benjamin Seigel is standing in the middle of the Nevada desert taking a leak and as looks around, reading the landscape; he sees it. . .his future and the future of the American mob.  There is not a goddamn thing out there other than scorpions and sagebrush, but is his mind’s eye, Seigel can see it; a Utopia for sinners and gamblers, servicemen in need of relaxation, a neon-lit Sodom and Gomorrah where “we the people” could indulge our darker and more libertine impulses.  And to Bugsy Seigel, Moe Dalitz, and other members of the Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City mob, it was a place about a fundamental American thing–freedom.  You want to gamble away the rent? Eat cheap prime rib? Get blown by a showgirl? Welcome Sir, your room is ready.

After WWII, the American male was ready for a little R&R.  The decades of conformity and the straight and narrow was for squares.  In Vegas, you were free to do whatever the fuck you wanted, as long as you didn’t bother anyone else.  Gone was the moralizing about what was proper and what wasn’t.

Moe Dalitz was one of those brainy, visionary outfit guys of the Meyer Lansky mold; a tough Jew from Cleveland who bootlegged, racketeered, and otherwise muscled  his way into the inner sanctum of the American mafia.  He was a builder of alliances between the world of entertainment and the underworld.  He had done much to help the careers of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin early on, and was good at being an architect of the mob’s ambitions from behind the scenes.  He was a gentleman gangster who eventually owned the Desert Inn.  He also was one of Vegas’s primary philanthropists, building schools and raising money for the indigent and for hospitals and orphanages.  He was also one of UNLV’s primary benefactors.  Whatever rep he had as a mobster had certainly been out shined by his reputation as a community leader later on.

In The Godfather II, Hyman Roth explains his love for Moe Green (a character based on Bugsy Seigel) and thunders at Michael Corleone: “He was a tough Jewish kid with a great dream and that dream became Las Vegas and nowhere in that town is there a statue or a plaque to remember him.  And when they shot him through the eye, I accepted it because I told myself, ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.'”

History is almost always written by the victors and their narrative is what must pass for the truth.  The victors designate for the rest of us just who was good and who was evil.  History is the lie we’ve all agreed upon.  I learned a long time ago that the American story owes as much to “bad” men as it does to the virtuous ones, in fact, maybe more so.  American history has always painted the Mob as the bad guys, when in fact this country in embracing the idea of  freedom and revolution, became our first Mob.

Some will read that thought as subversive, and they would be about half right.  Ask the English and the Hessian and he will tell you about the dishonorable way the settlers fought their revolution; from trees and behind rocks, rather than marching in the middle of a field with a bright red, easy-to-shoot jacket on like a fucking moron.

This one is for the bad men.  They are at least half of the story, whether you like it or not.

Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 10:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Cleveland Songbird

The Cleveland Song BirdLast year I was quite fond of saying that there were only three magical cities in America–New York, Chicago and New Orleans; the rest of it was fucking Cleveland.  I said this in my effusiveness to rally support for New Orleans and it was a funny, if cheap, laugh at the expense of Cleveland.

I’m going to stop saying that.  A great many of my friends from Cleveland didn’t appreciate it, and have fond memories of that city like I do of Chicago and New Orleans.  And the more I read about the city of Cleveland, the more I realize it is not very different than Chicago.  Dumb luck has made us the sexier city.  Dumb luck, geography and machine politics is what kept Chicago from sharing the fate of Cleveland.  My studio director, Stan Klein, is still a Cleveland Indians fan,which lately is a lot like being a Cubs fan; thankless, joyless exercises in the absence of reciprocal affection.

There is a longing about the city of Cleveland.  Many citizens groups are fighting the banks in the wake of the mortgage crisis, where banks and lenders fucked citizens with mortgages and interest rates that they knew the folks they sold them to could not repay and then getting even richer by selling “reverse mortgages.”   Clevelanders have not taken this lying down.  They’ve pushed back and tried to wrest some of the primacy of their neighborhoods back.

There are beautiful parks in Cleveland.  Cain Park, in Cleveland Heights, on the east side is a place loaded with birds, gardens and hills for sledding, as well as a theater and art studios.  My friends from Cleveland remember this place with great affection.

I wanted to make a metaphorical songbird for Cleveland and some months ago I bought a collage from my friend Alpha Lubicz.  She is my favorite collagist right now and last September she accompanied my crew to Japan.  In almost every flea market, Alpha and I went after the same kind of stuff.   She has an amazing eye for scraps and makes astounding works.  She is the goods.  For those of you reading this on Facebook, look her things up  in my friends list and get one.

For months, I looked at this beautiful bird-woman collage and finally called Alpha and asked her  if she’d mind if I drew it into my new piece.  After getting her blessing, I made this piece.   I changed  it a bit, but make no mistake; it is a case of out and out theft and generosity on behalf  of my friend Alpha.  I’ve learned much from looking at her work and so should you.

I gave her a bluejay’s body  just because  I love the fuckers.  They’re obnoxious and noisy and operate like gangsters; and they are so beautiful.  They, like starlings, often steal their nests by muscling the occupants out of it.   They just kind of show up and chirp, “Fuck You. Leave.”   And the other birds comply.  Bluejays are badasses and don’t take any la-la from other birds.

When I was a kid, I caddied and every once in a while would find a bluejay feather on the golf course and I don’t know why, but these were real treasures to me; simply because of that paralyzing blue. . .somewhere between cobalt and cerulean. . .a blue you saw nowhere else in nature.  A jazz blue.  A story blue.  A midnight kind of blue. . .carved right out of the holy sky.

Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Oil Beast

The Oil BeastI have a love for Mythological creatures–monsters, mermaids, Selkies, golems and whatnot– angels of death. . .

Being a refugee from Catholicism, I’m acquainted with all manner of imaginary apparitions, angels and the like.  Being Irish there is also that whole passel of Jenny-Linds, faeries and bog-trotting terrors embroidered into our narrative as well.

I’ve always liked gryphons.  Nobody can tell you exactly their genesis, though they are spotted most often in the heraldic symbolism of the British empire.  The Ottomans were also quite fond of them as was the Indian poet, Rumi, who wrote of them as if they actually existed.  In almost all accounts they are part lion, eagle and goat of some wild sort, and they are stone bad-asses; reportedly as strong as ten lions, if you believe the Scots. ( I don’t.)  They are quite arresting visually.  A few years ago I began noticing them around New Orleans on crests for hotels and things like that.

I’ve been thinking about New Orleans a lot the last few days.  The  disastrous oil-spill that comes just as this holy place has found its footing again.  Through the monumental cultural efforts of people like Daniel Cameron, the visionary who brought (against great odds) Prospect 1 and soon, Prospect 2, the New Orleans Biennial, to this town and struck the first vital blows and arguments for the cultural revitalization of this city, David Simon and Eric Overmyer; who have filmed the engrossing and deeply-felt meditation of New Orleans and its people with the “Treme” series for HBO.  Catherine Brennan, of the Brennan restaurant family, who built Second Line Stages in the Lower Garden District to attract more film projects and thus more jobs to New Orleans.   Garland Robinette, who fights the good fight for his city every day on the radio and takes no prisoners and accepts no half-measures.

It is a city and a people worth every word ever written about them.  I also can’t help but miss the brilliant Paul Sanchez and John Boutte, guys who stayed and played the benefits, kept the faith, and loved this city with a fury despite the fact that New Orleans could love its musicians a little more.  After all, music is New Orleans’  first language.

About a year from now my New Orleans diary will be published.  It is called  A Thousand Beautiful Things and when I started it three years ago, honestly I thought I’d be done by now.  But as with everything else in New Orleans, this book took its own sweet time and will be what it wants to be.  I’m going back down there in early June to reconnect and finish my thoughts about our most necessary city; this place. . .our covenant with the old world. . .the place where I finally learned how to dance.

Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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