Northward: 10 Songs for Chicago

This weekend, while my native state digs itself out of a terrible snowstorm in obscenely cold temperatures, I fly to Chicago for a whirlwind trip to a conference. Yes, for 36 hours I will be separated from wife and kids and surrounded only by the pasty-cold denizens of my field at one of those professional conferences where people nervously check your name tag to see if you’re someone to talk to or not.

I’ve only been to Chicago once before and then I was barely into first grade. My primary memory is that the trip involved my first ever visit to Toys R’ Us. And it blew my little mind. (Maine didn’t have the emporium for another three or four years).

So, in the spirit of my trip, here are 10 songs that have something to do with the Windy City.

“Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is odd. His music is quirky. But he (and his music) are damn good. The fact that I haven’t mentioned him before only underscores what a hack music-writer I am.

 

“Chicago, We Can Change the World”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When we grew up we had a family friend who played old protest and folk songs on his piano and Ovation Celebrity (though, not simultaneously—that would have been too cool). Although we each individually had fall-outs with this man, his musical taste and passion certainly made a tremendous impact on our lives.

This song was one of his standards. I still cannot hear the word Chicago without thinking of this song. The song reacts to the highly political and counter-cultural events of the late 60s when all went to hell at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The raw emotion and timeliness of the song always struck me, even as our friend sucked down Gennessee Cream Ales and chain-smoked in-between renditions of this and favorites by John Prine, Billy Joel and James Taylor.

“Jesus Just Left Chicago,” ZZ Top

No, this isn’t about Kanye.

How could I resist a song by this band with this name?

I have to confess that I really do wish I could grow I beard. I am not saying I could or would grow one to match one of these guys but I suspect that it would protect me against the vicious cold I’ll face this weekend.

“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”, Soul Coughing

My strongest memory of this song—by one of my favorite bands—is of the percussionist in my college band discovering that the lyrics developed from some type of drug-fueled existentialist fugue during which Mike Doughty contemplated the nature of what was and was not Chicago.

(And don’t think it is silly. What exactly is a city?)

Fueled ourselves by gin and tonics, there may have been imitative pointing and declaring that, yes indeed, this was not Chicago.

“In the Ghetto”, Elvis Presley (written by Mac Davis)

Yes, this is about Chicago.

True story: I was just in a sandwich place called Dave’s Cosmic subs and in the bathroom there was a fantasy painting of Elvis Presley crooning as Michael Jackson listened reclining on the hood of a car. It was all very creepy.

This ballad is so tortured and corny that it is transcendent. Less transcendent, of course, is the fact that Chicago leads the nation in murders and helps to round out some of our worst income inequality.

“Southside,” Common ft. Kanye West

Like all major US cities, I am sure that the class segregation will keep my conference and all of its attendees comfortably safe from the ghetto and from the working class neighborhoods. It is safe to say that the conference is not on the Southside of the city.

(Have I dared to mentioned that my respect for Kanye grows with each crazy thing he does? He is a performance artist.)

“If You Leave Me Now”, Chicago

One cannot have a list of songs about Chicago without including one by the band Chicago. Seriously, I am sure there is a law about this somewhere.

Chicago is one of those big-sounding, schmaltzy bands that I could care less about—the very over-produced and maudlin character that makes me avoid many bands from the time period. I hope I don’t feel the same way about the city.

“Chicago at Night,” Spoon

I haven’t talked much about Spoon on this blog, but it is a band that has great rhythms and writes some great songs. This album (poorly named Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) wasn’t great, but it was still pretty damn good. I don’t remember spending any time in Chicago at night…but then again, I was barely reading the last time I was there.

 

“Tonight, Tonight,” Smashing Pumpkins

This song was written in Chicago and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had the double album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) but it was not oft used and I think my brother took it from me. Smashing Pumpkins are one of those alt-Chameleon bands that could have done almost anything.

At night in Chicago, I will probably be drinking too much. But I won’t be melancholy (or hanging out with dogs). This video, by the way, is fucked up.

 

“Train to Chicago,” Mike Doughty Cover

My brother has written about how much he loves this song. It is a beautiful song and a great cover by Doughty. If I had endless stretches of time, I might take the train North to Chicago. There is something old-world and peaceful about a good train ride. If anything, it doesn’t have the frantic pace and madness of air travel.

So, my brother, while I fly north and endure the actual and metaphorical cold, perhaps you can let me know which songs I have missed.

(Oh, and wish our sister a Happy Birthday).

Spring Sunday Morning: A Quick One

It’s too bad Ray wasn’t from Maine originally because then I could say he was our greatest musical export ever. Granted, there a few other really good bands to come out of my beloved home state, but Ray is just awesome in everyway from his blue eyed soulful voice to the super tasty production. This a Sunday morning staple for me right now.

It has been a crazy couple of months. Between things with the band getting way more busy, my new job, my old jobs, fixing the old homestead up for spring and trying to expand my social scene, I am pretty scattered right now. Granted, I have a pension for procrastination which is infamous and a continual point of contention with my brother so I am trying harder to write stuff more regularly amongst the chaos of my life. I know the Elder J is also  incredibly busy so he doesn’t notice my slackery as much which actually works against me because the guilt I feel when he give me shit actually forces me to write more.  I am sure he is not sitting around waiting for me to post stuff as he tries to move his growing family into a new home and all the other crazy stuff in his life, but I thought of this song anyway.

Love the Kinks and this song is so classic of that sound in the mid 60’s. I someday want to write a series of posts of why bands like The Kinks never got as big as the Beatles when they could of or a good one too would be how come Ten Years After never even approached the greatness of Led Zeppelin. More on that later.

I had my first day off in roughly two weeks yesterday and I spent much of it mowing my lawn and clearing out beds for my vegetables which I need to plant next weekend. I woke up painfully early after going out and seeing my lead guitar player’s sister play a songwriter’s round gig at a way too classy for me bar in the largest city of my homestate in Portland, Maine. The music was sick and the beer was expensive but good so I really relished the first sip of the West Coast IPA I ordered as soon as I could get to the bar.

Like five minutes later, in walks a school superviser and his wife in a completely out there coincidence. I guess all of our principals hang out at this specific spot so I did what I thought was necessary and got them a round. It turned into a great networking scene and I ended up being out later than I expected yet still woke up on teacher time at roughly 5:30 am. I realize I was blowing off steam from two weeks of stress, but it felt pretty whack.

Probably self explanatory.

Our first big show of the season is next Saturday afternoon. I am pretty excited since it is an afternoon show to raise money for breast cancer. It’s a bike run that has a bunch of motorcyclists pay to ride between a few different locations before meeting up at the end to eat food, have a beer, and watch our band play some tunes. A bunch of people who would never come to a show at night because of familial obligations, puritanical values or an early bed time. It will hopefully raise some more money for a good cause while introducing a bunch of my friends and acquaintances to my band. The whole biker thing is not new to us as a band, I just hope it doesn’t scare anyone who is not so familiar like my teen age cousins. Lastly, I think we can all support breasts and the saving of them.

I could not stop singing this song yesterday and the Saturday before in unison with a dude I met at my old job of banquet serving/bartending whose name is Levon and he is from South Carolina. This guy was quite a bit older than me but busted ass carrying trays while telling me some hilarous stories about living down south.

Chicago is actually an incredibly good band which is why we will end out this post with a double shot. I always saw them as this cheeey band but now I can’t really see why I would ever think this. Ok some of it is a little sharp in the cheese department, but come on, this jam right here is gold. The piano make me think of Carole King and the horn section is like funky Phil Spector production. I guess they are only behind the Beach Boys in American bands in most charting singles and albums which is a brand new fact for me. They still tour and apparently are not bad. The former lead singer/guitarist Terry Kath shot himself in the head accidentily in 1978 playing Russian Roulette with a semi automatic pistol. The man can wail but seriously, what is the thought process there? Clearly he did not grow up around firearms.

This  is the late Terry Kath tearing it apart on an extended solo which sounds like it’s got a bunch of wah-wah pedal on it which is never a bad thing for me, as much as it annoys so many others. I have to attend an adult chorus concert tonight, do you think I have any chance of hearing this bad boy getting performed?

So now it is Sunday morning and I am going to finish writing this, maybe do a little fishing before attending my mother’s adult chorus concert at three and then being home in time for band practice at six which will hopefully end by nine so I can see the new Game of Thrones episode or at least finish watching the episode from last week that I still haven’t finished. Wore me out just writing that sentence but I ultimately feel blessed that I have so many things going on that I am interested in and passionate about. I know a lot of people who waste a lot of their time from my outsider’s perspective and one day we all figure out that time is finite and you better spend it well. So on that note, spend a solid few minutes listening to this amazing cover of a an amazing song and contemplate.

Obviously really into Ray right now, again. He’s the man.

Some more Political Songs

The Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know that

After I read my brother’s post about political songs, I knew that I couldn’t be silent. It is not that I do not like his list; in fact, I like it a whole lot. What I cannot leave untouched is his sense of disenchantment.  I think it is terrible that he feels so apolitical. I would call it tragic if it were not so common.

See, I feel  apolitical too. We live under a political system that is at best a plutocratic oligarchy where corporations are citizens. Our elections are so corrupted by money that we spend the GDP of some nations on elections. Even English speaking allies like the Canadians and British think our system is ridiculous.

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