I had the honor of doing the cover for the great Frank Catalano’s new cd, God’s Gonna Cut You Down. He is joined by the great Jimmy Chamberlin. These are “essential sides.”
More and more the Albert Camus quote about artists taking a long and arduous journey to rediscover the one or two images that first opened their heart; feels true to me. As a kid. I loved signs, and Chicago was full of them. I also memorized the ones in Villa Park and Lombard as a way of navigating. I loved the Cock Robin sign because of the rainbow cones you could get there– three neon-bright square scoops of sherbet. I also loved their burgers, which is not to say that they were good. They weren’t. they were buffalo-pucks, but as a kid, I ate all manner of garbage happily.
One of the things I loved in Tokyo was all of the packaging of candy, snacks, flair, popsicles, you name it. There were all kinds of signs and messages therein. Even today, I can tell what kind of neighborhood I’m in anywhere in the world just by the signs.
The Drive on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard from the Pacific to downtown LA takes you through every American circumstance and appetite, from the penthouse to the outhouse and back. One minute you’re driving through tony Bel-Air, and very soon you’re among the walking wounded of East LA. This drive is amazing at night, when Los Angeles looks like a fleet, sleek animal decked out in lights. I get what people love about it. On that majestic ride, everything looks possible.
Needless to say there were no Cock Robin burger joints in LA. They have Rick’s In-and-Out Burger, which is way better and also has an iconic sign.
People who’ve had near death experiences will always tell you “your life flashes before your eyes” or some such jive. In truth, they are not all the way wrong. You find yourself revisiting places, situations, and circumstances that are familiar, kind of like a deja vu thing, but more resonant because it is something from your life, if this makes any sense.
I saw the Cock Robin sign, the side of my house from childhood where my mother grew lily of the valley, and my sister’s rabbits, among other things. They felt like missives from a childhood, waving good-bye.
Somebody sent me a picture of this bird on Facebook. I believe its proper name is a “Silver Eared Maltesia,” which sounds like a medication you take for the clap. One often sees these birds in the Asian bird markets, where they are sold tethered to sticks as cage birds–a stupid and cruel practice which I wish would cease. In fact, I wish all trafficking in exotic birds would be outlawed. I’ve never understood the instinct of people who would cage a creature meant to fly. It seems contrary to the creature itself, and identifies a deep and abiding cruelty.
When I was a kid, there was less disposable income around. Instead of throwing out a worn pair of shoes, people got them repaired, re-soled and re-shaped, and had the heels re-built. There was a shop in the Greyhound Bus depot downtown that had, on any given day, what looked like dozens upon dozens of shoes in various states of repair, a couple of guys working diligently, and a curious, older guy who smelled like a Beefeater martini jaw-boning the customers and making change.
He would look at me and say, “Kid, do you know what they call a man who makes shoes?” and I’d say ,”A Cobbler?”, and he’d say, “That’s right, but what do you call the guys who repair his shitty work?” I told him I didn’t know and he told me, “Why, you call us anything but late for supper.”
All of the guys in the shop would crack up and I’d pretend to laugh, not quite understanding the joke. I was about 11 and my dad would get his wing-tips repaired here from time to time.
The place was full of old shoe repair signs and I never forgot this one.
An older man rolled a baseball to a troublesome little kid at a country club one day. The older man, his skin touched by a half a century of playing the boys game in sunlight, was Ernie Banks and the boy was my son—and he still has the ball.
It is widely known that I have not ever been a Cubs fan. But staring out of this window in a hospital room, baseball seems a million miles away right now and winter has decided to add to its cruel toll our greatest baseball player. Even if you were not a Cubs fan, you were an Ernie Banks fan, because Ernie embodied the very thing that Sox fans claim to hate the Cubs fans for: He loved the game. Let’s play two.
All Ernie Banks needed was the crack of a bat, the sound of a ball being caught and daylight forever, like to be drunk on.
One can be sure that Mr. Banks was subjected to no small amount of racial invective, stone-stupid bigotry and ignorance. The miraculous thing about this gracious man is that if it bothered him, he never wore it. He had a saying once in a while he would just share with friends, “Fools is fools is fools.” He learned to laugh at ignorance rather than carry it. One of his closest friends was Buck O’Neill. O’Neill found Banks playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues flush with talent in the late 1940s early fifties. By this time, O’Neill had been doing some scouting, mostly for the Chicago Cubs. Banks was a natural who could hit, could field and had such cool composure that whenever anybody yelled an ugly remark, he smiled at them. It wasn’t a “Tom” smile; it was a smile carved from ice that carried the promise, “You’re next. Pitch me inside, I’ll take you downtown. Pitch me unhittable balls, I will step outside the box and hit back at you twice as hard… I am in this game, too.”
He is perhaps the greatest player to never wear a World Series ring. And, even that was not enough to evince anything like the idea of “tragedy” from Mr. Cub. He was lucky every morning he woke up and got to play ball.
In later years, Ernie tried his hands at a myriad of things. Car dealership, various other businesses, only to find out what he was best at was being Ernie Banks so he served on boards, built boys clubs and was a vocal advocate for the community. Mr Banks raised a lot of money for a lot of organizations and always dapperly dressed with a smile on his face.
The 1960s brought the horrors of two Kennedy assassinations, the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, the Vietnam war and a palpable sense of rebellion among major league athletes, particularly athletes of color. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Roberto Clemente and others all had political agendas to raise and bring forward and all of them honorable. Not so Ernie Banks; he played baseball. He also played on maybe the greatest team to never win the World Series.
A great many athletes tried to pressure Banks into adopting their politics and being more vociferous. Ernie wanted to play baseball. It did not however keep him from being active in the community, along with athletes like Jesse Owens and Sugar Ray Robinson. Where there was a cause, there was Ernie Banks. Ernie aligned himself with the old guard, men who believed in the promise of America and did not feel the need to be radicalized. The younger athletes viewed the old guard as the “square guard” and that their lack of appetite for “revolution” amounted to “Tomism.” Robinson, Banks and Owens bristled at this notion. All three men were veterans (Banks served during the Korean War) and endured the worst racial intolerance that the late 1940s, fifties and sixties had to offer. Through it all, whenever Ernie Banks heard an untoward remark or the “n word,” he would crouch at shortstop or first base and throw a punch into his glove, break out a smile and hold his face to the sun. And, baseball filled him with light.
Also, three weeks ago I had chest pains which led me to the emergency room and a quadruple bypass. Me and my family have been deeply touched and moved by the outpouring of mail, email, good wishes, prayers and support from all of you. I will write more about this in the coming weeks but I am grateful beyond words.
This drawing has its genesis in remembering ditching high school and going downtown to hang around the bus station, where you could buy cigarettes, fuck-books, and rolling papers. It was at the corner of Clark and Randolph and it was a pungent, down-at-the-heels, way station for transients and those down on their luck, forced to ride the dog. Old people would sit in their chairs and pay to watch television, 15 minutes at a time.
Homeless people would do the same thing, except pretend to watch television, catching a few nods. This place is where questions about “class” in America began to take sharper focus for me. This drawing is about remembering that place. I miss it. Every time I hear Steve Earle sing ‘Continental Trailways Blues‘ or think about Denis Johnson’s brilliant novel, Angels, this place comes alive in my memory.
There is a marvelous novel by Colum McCann, the great Irish writer, called Let the Great World Spin, that is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It takes place on the day Phillipe Petit dances his magical dance on a high wire between the Twin Towers. It links together moments of lives that at first seem separate in the book, only to have sometimes close, sometimes tenuous connections, and hints at how dependent our stories are on each other. It is an immensely human and heartbreaking book. There is a couple mourning the deaths of their sons in VietNam and their grief renders a distance of whistling miles between them–a couple of Irish brothers, one a monk making their way in a new country they don’t quite comprehend and maybe aren’t quick enough for… it is a truly lovely book. I love daredevils like Petit, and his remarkable walk between the Towers, where he takes the time to play and dance and just almost become part of the air, and the wire, and the sky. . .it certainly makes the case that life is an all-or-nothing proposition. This bird is for Phillipe Petit.
If you’d ever seen Bobby Keys, you’d never forget him; big body, face like a canned ham, sandy-grey hair, and a smile as big as Texas. He was from that part of the country where you swear there is something in the water that makes musicians–Lubbock County, which gave the world everyone from Buddy Holly to Delbert McClinton. Bobby was from Slaton Texas , a stone’s throw from the county seat in Lubbock.
I don’t know how many times and in how many incarnations I saw Bobby Keys. Of course I saw him with the Stones, his biggest platform in rock and roll. But I also got to see him with Joe Ely at the Fitzgeralds American Music Festival, playing the kind of music he was born to play and playing with musicians who shared the same hard-scrabble geography of childhood that he did.
Over the years I’d seen him play with Lloyd Maynes, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and all manner of Texas troubadours and he was never less than a force of nature. His sound was as distinct as that of big Lee Allen; like a sonic fingerprint. He also had the Bobby Keys mythology following him around– the only guy to get kicked out of the Stones for a while after drinking a bath-tub full of Dom Perignon. There was talk that he drank it while he and two French hookers had cavorted in it, but Bobby often said he’d already drank it by the time the hookers arrived, saying “I’ve got too much respect for Dom Perignon, than to BRUISE it in such a way.”
Whenever I listen to John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Through the Night, I always think it is the kind of song he should have written more of. All throughout this joyful stomp is Bobby Keys, off the leash and running amok and it is the aural picture of a good time. Or when I hear the Stones’ Can’t You Hear Me Knockin‘, it is Bobby’s horn playing that low, rhythmic, dirty mind kind of horn that seems to crawl up from the depths and reach into your pants. His horn provided a great percentage of the Stones suggestive and transgressive funk, grease, and dirt and I, for one, am going to miss him.
These are actually Blackburnian warblers. They blow through here during migration. My pal, Greg, knows a place where you can see them every year in Lincoln Park.
I met with a bunch of the Chicago and Illinois Birders the other night at The Rail, a joint up on the north side. We watched the Bears get creamed and talked birds. It’s amazing to be in the company of people who know so much; where the owls will be, where this bird and that bird will be and always having to adjust estimations because of stuff like climate-change and adjust expectations accordingly. Sometimes I feel like I am WAY too late to all of thit, but these folks made me feel at ease. The only desire that is important to them is the desire to see birds, and to share in the wonder of what they magically bring into our world. I’m very grateful to be in their company and it’s wonderful to be able to learn so much new information at my age. I’m lucky.
Somebody sent me a picture of this bird on Facebook. I believe its proper name is a “Silver Eared Maltesia,” which sounds like a medication you take for the clap. One often sees these birds in the Asian bird markets, where they are sold tethered to sticks as cage birds; a stupid and cruel practice which I wish would cease. In fact, I wish all trafficking in exotic birds would be outlawed. I’ve never understood the instinct of people who would cage a creature meant to fly. It seems contrary to the creature itself, and identifies a deep and abiding cruelty.
This is actually a Riverside wren, a little bird endemic to Costa Rica and Central America. It is endangered because of shrinking habitat and climate change. The State of the Bird Report from the ABA came out last month with some dire and sobering results regarding the expected extinction of hundreds of songbirds in the next decade, which will be devastating to our ecosystem and a grim reminder of what “progress” has robbed us of. . .
For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of making the cover art for Steve Earle’s CD and album covers. The new one, Terraplane, is a blues record, and it is a knock-out. It is named for the old car that Nash used to make; one that blues men referred to as, “The Money Ride.”