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).

Who is Molly?

A friend who plays fiddle with my band suggested David Lindley to me a while back and has a portrait of the man in his living room where I often occupy the couch while jamming late into the night. This song gave me a very real feeling of closeness to my Father because I know he would have loved it since he held an affinity for religious tunes. Also, it’s so much better than the music I am subjected to on a daily basis as will be seen.

I have talked recently about how I have a new job. I am the long term substitute for the head of an alternative education program in the 8th grade. Both of the two teachers in the program had to leave (the last quickly), so I was shoved to the top of the ladder and suddenly had my own program.

I don’t want to get into specifics, but it has been a hard transition for everyone, most importantly the students. Most of these kids come from broken homes and have never succeeded in the traditional classroom due to a myriad of social, mental, and chemical reasons that cause them to exhibit some non-traditional behaviors. They love this song and I am constantly shutting it off throughout a normal school day on their iPads, iPods, laptops and cell phones. What happened to the Sony Discman?

The kids think I don’t know this song is about drugs. I asked them one day, just to mess with them, “Who is this Molly girl?” Although I never took this drug, whenever Disco Biscuits or Sound Tribe Sector 9 or Phish came through town in Vermont, there’d be a lot of it around and all the dread locked white kids (wookies) would be spinning around the campus greens. I was always more of a beer guy. For those not in the know, “molly” is pure MDMA, which is the active ingredient in Ecstasy and I believe a few other designer drugs. 

Some of them allegedly do drugs, which is a shame at their age and for their already suffering thought processes. Of the 16 kids in my class, I bet at least half of them have smoked pot or currently do, with half of those claiming to also do other drugs. I continually am explaining why the consumption of any mind altering substance at their age, molly or otherwise, will help to stop the development of their brains because their young minds are still forming. They almost always answer that this is only the case with hard drugs like molly or acid or cocaine and that weed and alcohol are ok and, in fact, legitimate stress relievers. I hope they don’t learn this from their parents, but I am sure they learn a lot of  it from Lil’ Wayne.

I had to explain to my assistant principal what Kush was when they played this in the gym while we shot some hoops at our daily gym time right after lunch. This is one of the things I instituted when I came in because I feel one of the issues is the kids don’t get their energy out in a positive way. He quickly shut off the stereo when he realized what the song was about but as soon as he left, back on it went while I was across the gym working on my free throws. I play the turn down or shut off game while one of them reverses it all day long.

I have never liked Lil’ Wayne, always being more of a fan of old school gangster rap like Biggy and Tupac. So much of his vocals are auto tuned and I just find that noise to be incredibly annoying. Furthermore, I find most of his messages are be about getting messed up and treating women badly which none of my students need in their lives. Now, there are many many misogynistic lyrics in the rap I like too but I didn’t listen to it in 8th grade and I could surely separate reality from fiction at that point in my life. I suspect that my students can too, but when engaged in an argument with a student on him attending French class last week, I said he was acting like a baby for refusing to go. In response, he swore at me and said  “Do babies snort coke off of strippers asses?” I almost responded  with “No they don’t and you don’t either because you have no money and can’t even get into a strip club” but my good sense prevailed and I just walked him down to the principal’s office to cool out. There is one song they play that is from my generation, albeit still kind of stupid but at least having a good beat and funny lyrics.

This guy was huge in my home state around freshmen year of high school, but it was “Cause I got High” and “Colt .45” and I don’t think I ever got through the album enough to hear this little diddy. I obviously can’t allow them to listen to this, but of the songs they listen to, this has the best beat and the most amusing lyrics.

I shut this song off at least ten times a day while the kids dance around to it and yell the parts with profanity louder than any other lyrics just to show people they can yell swears and attract attention. One of my favorite/worst students is a kid whose mother is dying of cancer in their trailer park while the step father does very little to help and the father having died when my 8th grader was in the 6th grade. This kid basically only has control over anything while at school so he mostly spends his days disrupting other classes and driving me nuts and occasionally sitting down and talking with me about why he acts the way he does.  Yesterday, he ran into a classroom in the sixth grade and yelled “sugar tits” and then slammed the door, prompting an email sent to me within two minutes of the crime committed  Dealing with that took up the best part of third period,  but he ended up not getting suspended and driving my stress levels up the rest of the day.

I am trying to get  a job in this school district next year so I deal with these kids as best I can to various results. My bosses think I’m doing a good job and some days I do, but I worry about these kids succeeding in the high school and in life in general. It’s more social conditioning than anything else so I wish I could play them this one rap song which will roll at the end of this paragraph. If they learn nothing else from me this year, it’s that you can’t play obscene songs in public areas and you need to use your words calmly and not yell at people. In other words, express yourself!

I could actually use this, it’s got clean lyrics! Plus, Dre says something about a subject and a predicate right?

Tame Impala: There’s one in my Yard

I have already broken my commandment of writing a long post and a short post each week, but it’s not due hardly at all to procrastination. In fact, I only recently got a real job where I have to be consistently engaged and no choice but to show up everyday, but I am sure the Elder is still sour with me as he should be. I will get into the details of my new job later since I think I could write volume on it at this point. Instead, check out this song that I know my brother mentioned at some point and I heard last night on a commercial.

This song, by Tame Impala, is badass. It’s like a dirty sounding T. Rex with all the fuzz and buzz one could want from a seriously righteous sounding garage band. I had to applaud the band for making the song and my brother for catching some thing cool before me. I can’t even remember what I was doing because I don’t know what the commercial was for.

Luckily, I heard the same song the next day on the weekly Psychedelic Breakfast on the classic rock station that I listen to every single Saturday morning even if I am up the whole night prior. True story is that the only thing that keeps me from listening to this show is geographical and apparently one can listen to it online so even if I am out of the state, I can still jam to this amazing set of music.

Naturally, they have a song called “Led Zeppelin” which almost sounds like a psychedelic version of one of that huge band’s song but with like a techno backbeat. Pretty cool.

After hearing the song and then getting the name from the DJ, I immediately remembered my brother talking about the band. These Australians describe themselves as a psychedelic band so it’s excellent I heard them on the aforementioned show. The song above grabbed my attention because of the name and ended up being very cool.  I have been scanning through their songs on the YouTubes and find them to be consistently awesome. They have this classic late 60’s, early 70’s feel with some sick riffs and the psychdelia of middle-era Beatles and early Pink Floyd but with more cohesive songs. Clearly, there’s a little prog rock in there too which I obviously love. Nothing insane for guitar solos so far, but give me some time!

After numerous mentions of the word Apocalypse, I still can’t spell with the word without spell check.  

To wrap up what is supposed to be a short post, I do in fact have a tame Chevy Impala in my backyard. Over two years after his passing, my father’s P.O.S  sedan with over two hundo on the engine still remains in the vacant spot where I should have heirloom tomatoes or some shit growing.  I finally have gotten the paperwork and enthusiasm to get rid of it and hope to sell it within the month and clear up the garden space and my mind because I know the old man would want it gone if it wasn’t running. I need to reboot my iTunes account and buy the whole album by Tame Impala and figure out more songs that rock while doing my spring clean up. This one definitely sounds like the Beatles.

This sounds so much like “I’m only Sleeping”.

This sounds to me a lot like the Revolver era of the Beatles that I probably like more than any other era and a heavier dose of psychedelia then they were into at the time.  This song, with the title of “Feels like we are going backwards” makes me think about my new job in education and almost every aspect of my life right now but I feel alright about it. Sometimes life does push you backwards which really just prompts me to push a little harder and try to think of how to do things differently. Spring is here and the glass is half full so let’s get on it!

Year in Review

It has been a very weird year, both globally and personally. We are several days past the supposed Mayan apocalypse and everything appears to be normal. Christmas parties and the accompanying songs are done and we have the one big blast of New Year’s Eve before we settle into the doldrums of winter, depending on where you live.

It has been ups and downs all around from my love life to the price of fuel. I started a band, I planted a garden, I hung out with some different girls, I did a bunch of fishing, I experienced my first earthquake and I finally got my own iPod. I was sort of apathetic towards everything after the holidays and the Elder J kept giving me shit about not posting anything so the obvious choice was a year in review. I always miss things when I try to be retrospective but such is life. Here it comes.

1. Hank Jr.

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Work Music

My brother and I have had  many jobs. Music can truly determine whether or not a job is good or complete torture. Every job I’ve had where you can’t listen to music at least some of the time has sucked and doesn’t deserve mention here. This will be at least a two-part post because as I’ve said, I’ve had many jobs.

Before I dive into this topic, I just want to reiterate how much music can shape an experience. Obviously we write this blog because we love music and those who read it must feel the same or else they just read it to mock us. It’s amazing how good music can make a shitty situation not only bearable but actually fun. It is yet another example of the transcendent nature of quality tunes.

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Procrastination Playlist

I am a terrible procrastinator and this blog seems to be the most affected by my crippling ailment (and much to my brother’s chagrin). I can’t tell you how often I get a text that simply says “posting soon?” from the Elder J. I know he just wants our blog to succeed and I know we started this blog to stay better in touch while having an intellectual project to work on as team, but I often want to text back and say something witty like “how about I post my foot up your ass?”

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