Star for the Night Radio

Star for the Night Radio
For about a decade, I had a job working in radio.  Not really a career, as I was only full time for about a year, mostly I reviewed horror and crime movies with my pal, Buzz Kilman and did various fill-in jobs for other hosts when they were on vacation or otherwise absent.  For a long time I really enjoyed it.  It was getting paid to fuck off and have a good time.  WLUP paid for my movies and then paid me to talk about them.  It was great.  Buzz and I had the same taste in films; we loved horror movies and action movies and slowly I found out we just loved movies.  In the beginning, we only reviewed horror films and action films–our kind of movies–but as our show grew more popular we were forced to review shit like When Harry met Sally and other “chick flicks” and found that our show was good, maybe even better, when we didn’t want to see the movies.  Siskel and Ebert we were not. Actually, we  enjoyed extolling the virtues of splatter films that those fine men abhorred.  We loved a good “quality kill;” an exploding head a la Scanners, or a protruding pineal gland, like in Basket Case.  We were kind of the anti-critics and we never confused movies with real life like many of the bone-headed censors do.  I’ve never thought life much imitated art, but quite the contrary.  It was a fun job.  I always thought one could do amazing stuff with radio as a medium if  the right imaginations were involved.  Not that I ever did any.

Regrettably, most of the radio I was involved in besides Drive-In Reviews was standard run-of-the-mill FM drivel that did nothing to distinguish itself.  It is one of my great regrets that I squandered this opportunity.  Especially in light of what others have done with it.
Studs Terkel dignified the medium for 50 years.  Ira Glass reinvented radio as real-life theater with This American Life and every day Terri Gross delivers illuminating interviews and intelligent perspective on Fresh Air.  I feel like I could have done more with the opportunity I had.

I quit in 1997, over a decade ago and remarkably, people still recognize my voice from “The Loop.”  I quit after I noticed the mean-spirited shows coming on and beginning to hold sway over this country.  Not that we at the Loop were gentle; we could be thoughtlessly cruel, and I regret what part I had in this as well.  Sadly, I was not above this.  Were there targets deserving of this pillory?  Mostly. . .yeah.  I still don’t  feel bad about the merciless pounding Penn Jillette and I issued to a “radio psychic” one night who had it coming and decided to take on Penn.  Mr. Jillette pounded the snot out of this guy but good.  He was one of those “cold readers” whom sad and lonely people would call with real life problems that required real professional help and not fakery.  Any number of these folks sounded like they could’ve benefitted from a psychiatric professional or medical help, and the “psychic” quacks can do real damage in this setting.

After I quit, I more or less stopped listening to the radio, other than NPR in the morning and news radio once in a while.  I mostly listen to music.  When I’d tune in once in a while, I was appalled at the level of hate radio; the Limbaughs, Becks, O’Reillys, Savages and a whole bunch on Air America as well.  Left or right–it was vicious.  Talk radio had become the worst neighborhood in our country.

Radio seems to thrive on instilling fear of each other into the atmosphere.  In my drives across country I’ve heard the most racist, anti-semitic, homophobic crap on the planet, the religious stations of the South and Southwest being among the worst of them.  These folks scare the holy dog-shit out of me.  There are times when I stare at the radio and I suppose this is the desired result.

There are other times when I listen to the classical station late at night and they’ll be playing Chopin nocturnes or Mahler or, on occasion, a furious storm of Shostkovich, and the radio is a great balm to the end of a hard day.  On Monday nights I listen to my pal Tom Marker’s Blues Breakers and the radio takes me to humid places where I can smell BarBQ and sweet tea.  Marker is a student of the blues and nothing escapes his notice; one of those great radio DJs that loves what they do, like the great Dick Buckley, Johnny Mars and Herb Kent, The Cool Gent.  Those voices I remain grateful for; out there like ether, in the night  air.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Star for the Eternal City

Star for the Eternal CityChicago is never more beautiful or dangerous than it is at night.

The workman-like, bustling, hurly-burly like endless hustle of daylight becomes a fleet and sleek animal at night.
Dressed in lights and stars, come-hither reds, yellows, and greens, the dirty carpet sky leans back and reveals a skyline of glittering skyscrapers like gangsters dressed in diamonds.

It whispers,”We’re bigger than you” and “There are more of us than there are of you” and still, “We’ve already won.”
On occasion, I ride the Chicago Avenue bus from downtown to Damen Avenue and this ride is always a miracle of languages and sights,  if not smells.

The CTA buses lurch along like tired old mutts ambling from one skinny tree to the next.

At night you can see the 5-Stars lit up in neon from the new bar with the old-style signage as well as the endless taco joints and the pink horse of Alcala’a Western Wear.

This is my favorite street in Chicago; one where you are as likely to hear Polish and Ukrainian as you would English.  It is a street about business–small business–nail joints, drugstores, tattoo parlors and cut-rate furniture.

It is  an avenue of tribes.  The Mexican joints are supported by Mexicans; the Polish and Ukrainian, the same.  The influx of hipsters and artist types go to hipster and artist coffee shops and the newer eateries.  Eckardt Park is there. Once a renowned boxing gym, it is now mostly a community center with a beautiful pool and park district programming. The old Goldblatt’s building, long dormant, is now one of the city’s hidden jewels awaiting a new definition.

There is a coffee shop called Lorraine’s where the food is truly shitty and the sign promises “Bitchy Waitresses.”  Only on Chicago Avenue could this be considered a plus.  The Edmar’s grocery store was knocked down in favor of a new Dominick’s, complete with an on-site Starbucks that despite the scorn of the local nose-rings, does a brisk business.
Chicago Avenue is the new and the old city right on top of each other, yet not as mismatched as you would think.  The colors and signage from a half a block away dissolve into a Babel of urban language; urgent, seductive and unstoppable, yet visually comforting if you think of this city as your home.

One of my favorite things to do is to walk my dog down this street late at night.  When I can’t sleep. . .when it is peopled by kids staggering homr from the bars, old guys leaving for work or coming home from 3rd shift jobs, it is an avenue of American stories intersecting at a swift pace and all happening at once.  It seems to be an avenue in a big hurry to get wherever the story takes it next.

My dog, Chooch, goes crazy for the food smells carried up and down Chicago Avenue.  Once in a while, one of the guys from Tacos Veloz comes out and throws him a choice morsel of skirt-steak.  This guy loves my dog because when you give him a treat, he doesn’t just wag his tail, he wags his whole ass.  These guys laugh like hell and toss him another piece of the juicy meat.

I sometimes get the idea walking this avenue that all of the platitudes about the melting pot and the American Dream are all true.  It all kind of works here.  There is no ruling population.  It is a community and everyone has a little piece of the great pursuit of happiness here.  Everyone has his or her task.  This is a working city.  We’re happiest when we’re working like sled-dogs so we can talk about how hard we work and what it means.  In Chicago, work is identity.  We are what we do.  It is how we hold on to our place in this city.  It is our very gravity.

I often hear criticism that I try to be all things Chicago, which is actually not really true, but so be it.  I am continually fascinated by the history that unfurls itself on a daily basis here; hard not to be.  This city is one of the greatest ongoing stories that I know of.  It is also the place that has kept me guessing the most.  There are mornings I wake up and I hate this city for its petty vindictiveness, its thoughtless cruelty, and its empty boosterism.  It’s run by clowns, pygmies, midgets, and chihuahuas and suffers from a lack of self-esteem so pernicious, it pushes its truly talented out of town.

Then there are the mornings I look out the window and one neighbor is helping shovel another’s car out of the snow.  Another is helping an elderly woman navigate the slippery sidewalk to the bus stop.  Still another is helping repatriate someone’s idiot dog who escaped the yard.  It is mornings like this when I feel like we are winning.   The big narratives define a city and the small kindnesses. . .hold it together.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 1:34 am  Comments (1)  
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Star for Tuscon – January 8, 2011

Star for TucsonThere was a  time when I regarded the Tea Party as noisy,  but mostly harmless geeks.  With their triangle hats and Jefferson quotes, they reminded me of the same dopes who were in the civil defense league when I was a kid.  A crowd of dolts and dumbbells who were mostly in it for the hats, the walkie-talkies and the opportunity to hold forth like the assholes they watch on TV–Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and other lesser McCarthyites who’d like to tell the rest of us how to be Americans–and have cast themselves as victims since Barack Obama was elected.  You know the types.  They forswear big gub’mint, until their particular industry goes tits-up and they need a bail-out.  They hold the Constitution sacrosanct; but gave not a fuck when the Bush administration shred habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights in the name of Homeland Security.  Where were all the Triangular Hats back then?

When John McCain picked Sarah Palin for his running mate a little over two years ago, I thought it was his way of giving up.  If you look at the tape of the end sputter of the McCain campaign, one could tell this was a guy who really didn’t want the job.  He was always a temperamental fuck.  A guy who honestly resented being asked questions. . .any question.  He was clearly a man far more used to giving orders than having to explain himself or his position.  You see, John McCain, for all of his years as a political animal, thought he was running for CEO of the United States.  He cultivated the skills of an executive and not those of a president.  You can’t fire Congress.  At the end of his campaign, one could tell he was relieved to have lost.

Palin, if you believe all of the subsequent reportage, was a disastrous candidate, unable to stay on message, full of platitudes and had an appalling lack of depth when it came to issues of a global nature.  Her home-spun, golly-gee, small-town dipshit act played with the Republican base.  The culturally conservative South loved Caribou Barbie.  Never mind the howls of protest from her own state colleagues, claiming she wanted to remove books from public libraries she found objectionable.  Sarah Palin was able to take a threadbare ideology and stretch it into some shelf-life.  She parlayed her Gidget-goes-to-Alaska schtick into a now-canceled TV show, in which she takes almost surreal delight in blowing the brains out of Alaska’s native wildlife.  It is odd to see a public official that turned-on by firearms.

She then saw her opportunity with the drool cases in the Tea Party.  This was a huge pool of disaffected, low IQ asshats that could be mined for votes.  Give her credit for being able to read the God, guns, and country zeitgeist.  She saw them coming; the Birthers, the Tea Party and the anti-ommigration crowd, the newly-minted Constitutionalists so infuriated by the idea of a president of color, they’d follow an ideological husk like Palin, no matter how hollow.  It was about then I started to think of the Tea Party and their ilk as something less innocuous.  When one of their number brought a loaded handgun to one of our President’s speeches, I came to the conclusion that these guys were essentially David Duke without the linen.

She used all of the amped up “lock and load” rhetoric, the “Obama wants to kill your Grandpa” scare tactics about Medicaid and Social Security, the ugly anti-immigration bigotry.  She used it so well, Rupert Murdoch made room for her on the FOX network, to help spoon feed the hatred to the yokels, shit-kickers, and stump-jumpers.

I still think the Tea Party is largely comprised of under-acheiving slap-dicks, looking for someone to blame for where they are in the world.  Your basic garden-variety bigots who chafe at the idea of an African American as leader of the free world.  I’d like to think they are mostly harmless.

And then came Saturday.  Senator Gabrielle Giffords, a fairly conservative Democrat, was gunned down and seven others were murdered, including a 9-year old girl, by some nut with a belly and head full of muddled rectitude and hatred.

The Tea Party and Right Wing went in to full-on denial mode, trotting out the “lone-nut” scenario almost immediately, listing every whackjob tract Jared Loughner had ever read  from his MySpace page, including a few of their own.  It should not be lost on us that this is the first assassin with a MySpace page.  Fortunately, also not lost in the furious denials were Palin’s own propaganda with the gun-sights marking political targets, Senator Giffords’ district among them.  If this is an act of an isolated madman, why Senator Giffords?  Why Tucson, Arizona whose own sheriff lamented that his state had become the capital of hate-speech and prejudice?

A year ago , my Publisher and I took a road trip through the American West . Of particular interest to me was New Mexico and Arizona.

These states were at the white-hot center of the debate on immigration. National xenophobe, Lou Dobbs, was frothing at the mouth about the threat of illegal aliens and the Minutemen fools were “helping” the border patrol in what looked like vigilante squads comprised of bigots.  Not long after this, Lou Dobb’s fat ass got canned and there seemed to be some rationality returning to this discussion.  But everywhere we went in those states, it was made clear to us that we were in their America; the culture of the gun.  At a restraunt we stopped at in Tucson, there was a sign at the hostess standthat said: “Please check your firearm before you are seated.”   I honestly thought they were kidding.  The waitress assured me they were not.

Surely there were other places the disaffected, “lone nut” Loughner could have unleashed his fury; places where guns are easy to get and the second amendment is just as revered.

Jared Loughner chose Tucson.  He chose Senator Giffords.  And sadly, he chose seven others as well. And the reason is that this discourse of fear and hatred is in the air in this state, part of its language currency at this moment, fueled by a very focused bigotry and a shitty economy.  The heated-up, anti-government, anti-Obama, anti-immigrant speech took up residence in Mr. Loughner’s tin-foil hat and it rattled around like a BB in a box-car until this fucked-up, pissed-off American decided to make somebody pay.

It is days like Saturday, January 8th, I fear that we have the country we deserve.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 12:59 am  Comments (1)  
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Star for a Blue Mosque

Star for a Blue MosquePlaces of worship are an odd  thing for me to like. On the face of it, it would seem unlikely– I am not religious.  I am an atheist.

When you say that world, the average person thinks you believe in nothing, and this could not be further from the truth.  I believe in the ongoing reality of the universe.  That is easy.  It is right there in front of us and all around us.  I believe in medicine, science, poetry, art, physics and evolution.  Again, things that are evident in our daily lives.  I also believe people are basically decent, though some events recently have shaken that faith but good.  The long and short of it is, I believe in humanity and the ability to repair our ills and to look beyond our own selfish needs. . .what people of my parent’s generation called, “brotherhood” and people of my own generation refer to as humanism.

I had a conversation with my friend, John McNaughton today.  The question of, “Is there a god?” is something he and I kick around in almost every conversation we have.  McNaughton has a ferocious intellect.  He is a film director who has made some amazing American fare. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer which, despite its title, was more of an art film that comes unnervingly close to the reality of such people.  Nothing glamorized nor a hint of condescension, it is the raw ether of the real thing.  In almost all of John’s film’s, we are asked, cajoled and sometimes titillated with an ellusive idea–What is evil?

It is something he thinks about as a big picture.  Unlike me, John does not believe people are basically decent.  Let’s just say he takes a dim view of people as a body politic and his evidence is history.  Yet he believes in a god and I don’t.  Our conversation comes down to  John believing that there is something beyond us. . .bigger than us.  I agree with him there; the universe and all of those other things are bigger than us.  These conversations are more than an exercise.  We are grown men past the age of 50.  The names we read in the obituaries are, sometimes, people even younger than us.  Death has definable features.  Where it once lagged long behind us, it now walks hand in hand. My friend, John reads every goddamn thing; Herotodus, Tony Judt, The Economist, Plato, and  Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish intellectual and deconstructor of Marxism.  This is his “light” reading.

As often as we have this conversation, we both can name all of the big houses of worship in Chicago: Holy Name  St. Stanislav’s, The Ba’Hai Temple.  The Mosque Maryham.  Because they are cornerstones of communities.  There was a time when Chicago Catholics didn’t ask you where you lived in the city, but what parish you were in.  Though I no longer consider myself a Catholic, by those around me I will always be considered “culturally Catholic.”  Is Catholicism still present in my life?  As much as I’d love to say I’ve separated myself from it, it’s still there.  My work as an artist definitely is a marker of my early Catholicism.  The center figure with activity surrounding it and a narrative?  Textbook holy car imagery and I come  by it honestly.  Holy cards were a huge part of my life as a child because my father worked in the funeral business.

I remember the holy cards as things the dead left behind.  For the longest time, I carried my father’s in my wallet until it fell apart.

The holy card would have the name of the deceased, the years they lived and some brief prayer.  My father’s had St. Teresa, the little flower.  She was his favorite saint.  Every time he won money in the lottery, he cut the St Teresa Society in for 10 points.

This fall, I went to Istanbul and visited the Blue Mosque.  Its proper name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.  They built it in 1609 because the sultan had lost some wars.  He figured he’d better scratch together a legacy and he built the Blue Mosque.  They call it the Blue Mosque because of the over 20,000 Iznik tiles inside; tiles that all have some variation on the tulip contained in them.  It is a woudrous thing to see.  The inside of it is breathtakingly beautiful.  When I saw this place, I actually shook and the hair on my arms stood up.

It is as much a source of pride for Turks as it is for Muslims.  It is a place of worship for Islam and it is  one of the jewels of the Ottoman empire.  I walked through this place thinking about the differences between Islam and everyone else and I  felt that no matter what anyone says, no culture filled with hate could’ve built this thing.

Houses of worship have this effect on me. I want to like the people who go there; the devout, the faithful. those who seek the strength to do good, even as I disagree.  Or maybe because I disagree.  I want to believe the thing beyond us as humans is ourselves, as a collective, trying to achieve Grace.

Published in: on January 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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