“be your natural self” – frankie “half-pint” jaxon (1940)

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I’m an avid reader and I’m always looking for new and interesting books that help me learn and grow.  I mostly read non-fiction which helps a lot.  However, the topics of those books are things that I may not be personally connected with.  Since I live in Chicago and know the city well, I’m trying to broaden my reading material by including more local authors.  I want to gain their insights into a city, culture, and way of life that I have in common with them.

This week, I’ve been reading The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century by local author Jim Elledge.  Elledge’s latest book is a history of gay culture in the Second City from the 1840s through the 1940s.  Based on a variety of sources, Elledge vividly portrays life in Chicago for the gay men who lived discreetly in order to pursue their passions and desires.  He profiles key individuals that add a slice-of-life context or who were valued for their historical contributions as well as provides context on various areas of the city that were hubs for the gay community.

Some of the men Elledge profiles in his book may not have been historically significant with very little information available about many of them, but they add a historical context to what it was like to live as a gay man.  Compared with today’s societal standards, your way of life was often misunderstood and mischaracterized (for example, a man who penetrated another man was masculine and, therefore, not a homosexual).  The types of queer men that received the most scrutiny were the ones viewed as feminine.  Female impersonators received the most trouble because their behavior was more visible than the type of queer man who dressed in a masculine man.  During the 1800s, a man who dressed as a woman could be imprisoned.

I’ve been living in Chicago for nearly eight years.  I’ve explored a lot of this city, but there is so much I still haven’t seen.  Not only that, but there is a ton of history to explore.  I have so much left to learn about the city from a modern context, but I also feel compelled to understand and contextualize its history as well.  Knowing many of the neighborhoods now in 2018, it is so fascinating to learn how different those same neighborhoods were during the latter half of the 19th century.

For example, consider the area north of the Chicago River.  The Near North and River North neighborhoods are home to amazing restaurants, condos, high-fashion shopping, hotels, and other qualities you would find in an affluent neighborhood. However, during the late 1800s, this area was a Bohemian neighborhood called Towertown.  In Towertown, gay men with little money could find cheap accommodations and live within a community where their non-queer neighbors were more tolerant of their way of life.  Many of these men were artists, performers, and transients who could, within societal reason, feel free to be unapologetically queer.  Female impersonators could walk the streets freely and other types of queer men could pursue sexual conquests at any of the local clubs.

Other areas of the city were profiled as well and had their own distinctive qualities.  In the 1800s, Chicago became a major railroad hub.  Young men from around the country could hop the trains and ride the rails away from whatever they were trying to escape.  Whether they were running from the law, abusive parents, or towns where their queerness was problematic, many of these young boys and men found refuge in Chicago.

In the West Side, where the railroads were serviced and operated, existed several hobo jungles where vagabonds lived and were serviced by the young boys coming off from the trains.  There existed an active queer culture among the hobos who occupied the rail cars and abandoned buildings in the area.  Even young men new to the city could make some money as prostitutes in the area.  Their quality of clothes wouldn’t get them business from the wealthier older gay men at State and Randolph, but they could scrape together a few dollars here and there to survive.

While the Bohemians of Towertown and hobos of the West Side contributed to the city’s colorful and varied tapestry of queerness, the real action was in Bronzeville.  Bronzeville, in Chicago’s South Side, is a predominantly African American neighborhood that was built up after many African Americans fled to the north from the south in what is referred to as the Great Migration.

Bronzeville was a haven for queer black men for a few reasons.  First, it allowed them to pursue other queer men without racial discrimination being a factor.  While white queer men in Towertown would preach free and open love for them as queer men, there were still lines drawn when it came to free and open love as far as black queer men were concerned.

Secondly, Bronzeville was also a very hip place to be because of the jazz and blues music one could see.  While white queer men would perform vaudeville and burlesque acts that were inspired by and derived from minstrel shows popular several decades earlier, blues and jazz were the exciting new art forms queer black men pursued at the beginning of the 20th century.

Of all the people profiled in the book, no one fascinated me more than Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon.  Jaxon was born in Montgomery, Alabama and referred to as “Half-Pint” because of his diminutive stature.  In the early 1910s, he started his career as a singer in Kansas City before travelling around the country to perform.  Eventually, he would find regular work in Atlantic City and Chicago with the latter becoming his home.

Jaxon’s performance style was unique.  He often sang with a high feminine voice and performed as a female impersonator on many of his records.  The best example of this is his recording of “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).”  Originally written and performed by Trixie Smith seven years prior to Jaxon recording his version, the song is about Smith, a woman, making love with her man.  With Jaxon, a man, performing the song while imitating a woman with his signature feminine voice, the song takes on a whole new meaning that speaks to Jaxon’s queerness and queer culture.  Jaxon also says the word “daddy” more than Smith did, so it heightens the queerness.  In addition to the voice, Jaxon adds his own flavor by adding in various grunts and moans which leads many music historians to believe that this is the first recorded song to include an allusion to an orgasm.

The police and government officials in Chicago held varying views on queerness and vice in the city depending on external factors.  For example, the queer community received less raids during the Great Depression because they were spending money and boosted the economy.  Once that period was over, the city cracked down harder on vice.

With World War II looming over the horizon, the city and its police force began to take a strong stand against anything that was feminine or was anathema to masculinity.  As a result, more and more queer clubs were getting raided and shut down.  Reading the writing on the wall, Jaxon decided to officially retire from show business to avoid being arrested.

On April 17, 1940, Jaxon put his own feelings into one of the last songs he ever recorded.  “Be Your Natural Self” was a declaration of advice to his brothers in the queer community.  In the song, Jaxon declares his message that he wants queer men to be able to live freely and without apology.  However, he also cautions them and implores them to be careful.  It isn’t safe to be a queer man right now, so don’t flaunt your queerness openly.  Maybe someday you can do that, but now isn’t the time.  However, within the standards of society now, be your natural self the best way you can.

Not much is known about Jaxon’s life after he quit music.  He did work for the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and was eventually transferred to Los Angeles.  However, the date of Jaxon’s death has been up for date which various sources citing his death date as either 1944, 1953, or 1970.

Society ebbs and flows with regards to what it tolerates.  Things are harder for queer men than for straight men, but how much backlash queer men have experienced varies over the years.  In the days of Jaxon, it was a career killing move to be discovered as a female impersonator.  Now, we have major television shows featuring female impersonators and drag queens.

Same-sex marriage is legal now, but that freedom might also be in trouble with Trump’s latest Supreme Court pick to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.  A lot of progress has been made within the realm of LGBTQ+ rights, but there looms over the horizon groups of people and actions that could potentially reverse that progress.  While it has been fascinating to learn about Chicago’s gay community during the first 100 years of it being a proper city, but the discrimination that comes with that period is not something we need today.

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“grazing in the grass” – hugh masekela (1968)

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Today is the spring equinox, colloquially known as the first day of spring, in this part of the world.  Though our calendar officially recognizes the seasonal change, it sure doesn’t feel like it in Chicago.  Currently, it is hovering around freezing and expected to snow later in the week.  To call this spring, especially after such long winters in Chicago, it can be seen as some cruel joke for some, but I don’t mind it.  Spring will come.

March can be such a strange month for weather.  One day, it can be bright, sunny, and warm enough to leave the jacket at home.  The next day, you’re bundled up in your scarf, hat, and mittens.  I was standing on the train platform this morning during my morning commute thinking about the lovely weather we had this weekend.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago which, depending on the area, can be a chaotic mess.  A friend of mine and I chose to head out of the city to see Asian orchid flower displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There were lovely displays of orchids and all their bright, shimmering glory with warm welcoming hues of purple and yellow and red.  The flowers were displayed along the walls with a quiet water fixture in the middle.  It was incredibly calming and peaceful.

It was also very sunny out and warmer than had been during the week.  Last St. Patrick’s Day, it was miserably cold.  I remember standing in a courtyard at the base of Trump Tower looking at the river and waiting for it to turn green.  It wasn’t the coldest day of winter, but it was sure one of the coldest days.  SO much trouble to stand amongst drunk suburbanites and college students waiting to see a dirty river change colors.  As festive as I can be, I wanted no part of it this year.

Not only were the orchid displays gorgeous, it was also a really lovely day.  The sun was out and the temperature has risen enough to where I could comfortably walk around without my jacket.  And it kept getting nicer as the day progressed.  Later that day, I was sitting on a Metra platform, reading a book and my bare arms were exposed.  I marveled at how warm and inviting everything felt.  It only got better the next day with more sun and even warmer temperatures.  One of my purest joys in life is the first day I can comfortably wear short sleeves all day.  I got to experience that on Sunday and that is when I’m officially over winter.  Just a little taste of spring and I have to have it all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.  I was reminded just how unpredictably March in Chicago can be as I was shivering on the train platform.  I may not have actually been that cold.  It may have been an unconscious reaction considering the delightful weather I just experienced over the weekend.  Like an addict going cold turkey, I was shaking all over.  I need another hit of that spring awakening.

As I wait for Chicago to make up its mind and fully commit to spring, I ease the transition by listening to music that, for me, evokes fun in the sun.  Not quite the fun you find when its time to hit the beach, but the kind of fun where you can walk through parks without splashing around in dirty slush or slipping on the sidewalks.  I’m talking about the fun in the sun where you can go for a run, practice for your upcoming softball league, or maybe even grab a delicious treat from any of the fro-yo shops that are beginning to bloom.

Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is the perfect song for such an occasion.  “Grazing in the Grass” was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by Masekela in 1968.  Most people are more familiar with the 1969 cover by the Friends of Distinction with the added lyrics, but Masekela’s original evokes a more calm and casual feeling.

The song was inspired by “Mr. Bull No. 5,” a novelty record that Masekela had heard in Zambia earlier.  In fact, “Grazing in the Grass” almost wasn’t released.  Masekela was working on his 1968 The Promise of a Future, but was short by three minutes.  At the record company’ suggestion, Masekela recorded the song along with Philemon Hou, also in the studio, who wrote a new melody.

Masekela’s signature trumpet sound on the track, just like spring, is gorgeous and not overbearing.  I just feel really good listening to it because it is simultaneously calming and motivating.  It makes me want to get out, move, and just enjoy the world around me.  This year, Masekela’s recordings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Masekela passed away earlier this year.  As one of South Africa’s best musicians, he championed anti-apartheid sentiments in his compositions.  Much of his work closely reflected his experiences growing up in segregated townships.  During the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Masekela faced extreme racism and exploitation under apartheid.  He managed to channel this into his revolutionary music that protested government-mandated violence and slavery.

While “Grazing in the Grass” may not have the same political furor as “Bring Him Back Home” or “Soweto Blues,” the song is powerful in its own right.  The power the song has comes from it evoking happiness and peace.  Amidst all the suffering and violence black South Africans faced from their oppressors, there was still a desire and yearning for joy.  Walking peacefully through the grass may not seem a revolutionary act to most people, but the drive to live a life where you can do what you please is one.

I understand that bracing one’s self against Chicago winters and institutionalized slavery are not the same things. However, my experience with this track is different than the context with which it was composed and recorded.  Back then, it is a yearning and declaration for one’s own sense of peace from oppression.  For me, right now, it means happiness on a smaller scale.  In the end, its all happiness and, baby, I can dig it.

“midnight, the stars and you” – ray noble and his orchestra (1934)

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Pop-up bars have become the latest craze in nightlife entertainment over recent years.  The idea of a pop-up is that a restaurant or bar will provide an experience that is not typical of their normal fare.  Décor and menu items will be updated to reflect the theme of the pop-up while attending patron interact with any additional elements that supplement the pop-up experience.

Pop-ups are nothing new, but there has been an uptick in the quantity and quality of pop-ups around.  Especially in Chicago where most of the pop-ups are modeled after television shows and movies that are either popular or provoke a deep sense of nostalgia.  In the last year, Chicago has seen pop-up bars for pop culture icons such as Saved by the Bell, Stranger Things, and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

The whole point of the pop-up is to generate novelty appeal.  People enjoy, or have enjoyed, these elements of pop culture and desire to spend money in an establishment that puts the patron through an immersive experience while creating an atmosphere that generates fanfare easily uploaded to Facebook or Instagram.

The business model of these pop-ups is driven by two things: novelty and scarcity.  The novelty stems from the overall theme or content of the pop-up.  The scarcity comes from the limited runs of these pop-ups.  While a show like Stranger Things is currently very popular, a permanent establishment may not last long and could lose its luster over time.  So, by creating a temporary experience in a permanent space and limiting the hours, you’re bound to generate a lot of buzz that leads to a high demand.  It is something that won’t be around long and not everyone gets to experience, so patrons will make the time to visit and spend money.

On the flip side, there is a lot of legitimate criticism around the very idea of pop-ups.  Pop-ups are sometimes seen as lazy and unoriginal.  By relying on the appeal of a pop-up, some skeptics see that venues are unconcerned with repeat business; when the pop-up ends then there is no need to visit that establishment again.  While those are valid criticisms, they are a bit cynical.  Restaurants and bars have to drum up business anyway they can.  And in a major food city like Chicago, that is especially true.  So, pop-ups help.

The legality of pop-ups can also be an issue as well.  Some pop-ups based on intellectual property and not officially sanctioned by the license holder can be issued a cease-and-desist letter.  This happened to the Stranger Things pop-up when Netflix felt the restaurant was violating intellectual property, fair use, and copyright laws.  However, surprisingly, I’ve seen several pop-ups last for their intended length without threat of lawsuit.

I have visited three pop-ups since this craze hit Chicago.  Only three because I haven’t really cared about the theme of most of the pop-ups.  I didn’t feel the need to go to something representing a movie or a television that meant nothing to me, where I wouldn’t get the references, and be served overpriced drinks.

The first I attended was Moe’s Tavern in October.  Modeled after the Homer’s favorite bar in The Simpsons, it was a pop-up dedicated to everyone’s favorite yellow family.  The pop-up was hosted at Replay in Lakeview (formerly Headquarters) and was open during the normal business hours.  I went early one afternoon by myself and checked it out.  There were cardboard standouts, character decals on the walls, some framed art, and stuff hanging from the ceiling.  The drink specials were cocktails referencing things form the show.  However, the signature drink was “The Flaming Moe.”  Named after a drink in one of the episodes, it was a shot of liquor mixed with something to mimic the children’s cough syrup flavor and then lit on fire.  Needless to say, the drink was awful but the pop-up bar was amusing.  That was my reference point for pop-ups.

A few weeks ago, I went to my second pop-up.  Again, it was at Reply.  However, this time, the theme revolved around [adult swim]’s Rick & Morty.  Turner Broadcasting, owner of [adult swim], had contacted Replay but gave the bar permission to run the pop-up through February 11th in an unofficial capacity.  I went with some friends this time and it was fun.  Same deal as The Simpsons pop-up a few months earlier.  With this being my second pop-up, I was already forming an impression of what they should be.

A few weeks ago, it was announced a pop-up commemorating Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was going to open in Ukrainian Village at a bar called The Rookery (not to be confused with the famous building in the Loop).  Named “Room 237,” after a legendary documentary detailing conspiracy theories form fans of Kubrick’s films, this pop-up was set to create the experience of visiting the Overlook Hotel.

One afternoon, a friend of mine and I decide to go check it out.  I looked on Yelp what the business hours were and we set out on a 30-minute bus ride from my apartment.  We got to the bar and were pleased it was lightly attended.  This meant the pop-up wouldn’t be too crowded.  We asked where the pop-up was and were told that it was closed.  We learned that the pop-up was only open one night a week.  And the host gave use details about the first weekend it was opened.  He said the pop-up didn’t open until 9 PM, but people were arriving as early as 7 PM.  And so many people came that a line formed that led out of the bar and down the street for over a quarter-mile.   These were people waiting in freezing temperatures for several hours to have a drink in a place that had stuff from The Shining on the walls.  We left.

Based on my experience with The Simpsons and Rick & Morty pop-ups, I had developed assumptions about the “Room 237” experience.  I told my friend how lame it was to generate scarcity on such a level that people would have to wait several hours in the cold.  We learned that the Rookery was going to open on Friday to break up the demand.  My friend suggested we go then and I begrudgingly agreed.  I had already made up my mind that “Room 237” was lame.

Friday finally came and I met my friend at the Rookery.  He got there a little after 7 PM, but was the first person there to put his name on the list.  Chicago had experienced a snowstorm with a high accumulation of snow that started falling the previous night.  Plus, the Winter Olympics opening ceremony was airing.  I hoped both those things would keep people at home and make the experience of the pop-up less crowded.

Despite being told the pop-up would open at 8 PM, our names were called first at around 9:15 PM.  The bouncer let us go up the stairs into a small room.  Immediately, I could tell this was a little more classy and planned than my previous two pop-up experiences.  The furniture and décor accurately matched the film.  There was a rug and throw pillow with the same design as the Overlook’s carpet in the film.  The bar had the same golden glow as the bar in the film’s Gold Room.  There were curtains that opened to reveal painted mountain landscapes.  A projector was displaying shots and scenes from the film.  And, best of all, there was a table with a typewriter and surrounded by paper with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” written all over it.  I could see this pop-up was on a whole different level than what I experienced before and I started to lighten up.

The best part of the experience were the staged actors.  The bartender was dressed like the ghostly bartender in the film.  He also interacted with an actor dressed up like Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s classic character.  And, occasionally, two women dressed as the Grady Twins would show up, stand motionless and quiet at the end of the hall, and disappear without you knowing.

I had drinks with my friend and we took in the décor.  Everything was cleverly designed.  You could even find “REDRUM” scrawled on the interior of the bathroom door where initially unnoticed until you looked into the mirror to wash your hands.  It was a very fun experience.

Music also played in “Room 237” was well.  The film’s score was featured, but you would also hear the most famous song from the film played every so often.  At the end, as the camera dollies towards a framed photo revealing Jack Torrance at a New Year’s Eve party in 1929, the song playing is Ray Noble’s version of Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You.”  Noble recorded the song with his orchestra on the Victor label in 1934.  The inclusion of that song added an extra level of sinister familiarity to the pop-ups décor.  Also on the wall was an enlarged version of that photograph seen at the end of The Shining.

This pop-up really stood out for me.  I was expecting just tacky art on the wall, but the music, furniture, and characters really gave this pop-up life and credibility.  I wouldn’t have waited hours in the freezing Chicago weather to get in.  However, the time we put in and chilled at the bar downstairs prior was worth the trouble and “Room 237” really did set a standard.  After such an incredible Chicago snowstorm, it was the best place to be.

“stand up for something” – andra day feat. common (2017)

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All this week, cast and crew of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah have ventured away from their New York studios to take their brand of political satire on the road.  Dubbed The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Undesked, the team of correspondents chose Chicago to host the first installment of the show’s travelling format.  When I found out about this in July, I got tickets to the taping as soon as they became available. Despite having been in New York twice during the years Jon Stewart helmed the show, I missed out both times to see the show.  Now that it was happening in my own backyard, there was no way I was going to miss this show.

Tickets guaranteeing entry were acquired back in July, and demand was hot.  Even though I had passes that would guarantee us entry, we still had to show up early.  This is a television production after all.  The crew would tape that afternoon and the program would broadcast later that evening.  Protocol had to be followed and punctuality was everything.  So, I met with six of my friends and we enjoyed pleasant conversation waiting outside on a beautifully sunny and warm October afternoon.

When it was time to go inside Athenaeum Theatre, the show’s home away from home in the Windy City, we followed all the necessary procedures to get to our seats.  Police officers searched bags, we walked through metal detectors, heard about the show’s rules once seated, and all the other little things that ensure the taping goes well and that we were a respectful and cooperative audience.

After some time waiting, one of the show’s crew members gave us the run down on what was expected from us which was common sense; no cell phone use, stay in your seats, and make a big noise when prompted.  After that, the show’s opening comedian Angelo Lozada came to perform.  Lozada is a Puerto Rican man in his 50s whom I had seen open for Trevor Noah last year when Noah performed a stand-up set at the Chicago Theatre.  Lozada engaged with members of the audience and was playful so he could build up our excitement.

After Lozada’s set, Noah came out and went over the show’s format with the audience.  He also took two questions from the crowd; one of which came from my friend Jean who asked which guest had inspired Noah the most (the answer: President Barack Obama).  Noah left and the monitors played the show’s special opening clip.  Parodying his iconic role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein stood beside Noah’s desk calling “Trevor, Trevor, Trevor.”  Cut to Trevor Noah performing on a parade float in the Loop until realizing he had a show to do.  Committing to completely referencing all the memorable scenes from the classic movie set in Chicago, Noah and the show’s correspondent team are running through the streets and backyards of suburban Chicago set to the Beat’s “March of the Swivel Heads.”  There were even incredibly hilarious takes on this scene such as Roy Wood, Jr. stopping in a yard and saying that he, as an unannounced black man, was not going to go up to some stranger’s house in Chicago and decided to call a cab.  The crowd absolutely loved the satirical take on a Chicago classic.

Trevor took the stage after the introduction clip and greeted an explosive and jubilant audience.  Very much promising an “undesked” program, the set lacked a desked and was designed to resemble the city’s famous L tracks.  Under this format, Noah felt like he was performing stand-up which is ultimately what his show is but with a desk.

After greeting the audience, Noah launched into the show’s theme of the night: violence in Chicago.  He talked about the reception he received when he was going to do a week’s worth of shows in Chicago and that he should be careful if he didn’t want to get shot.  Noah discussed how Chicago had become a talking point for conservatives to address gun violence.  While Chicago may have the most murders by numbers, there are other cities where the murder rate is higher.

Noah continued to explore this theme in the opening segment and what those criticisms actually mean.  He played clips of Donald Trump talking about Chicago and what a mess it is and that something should be done about it.  Essentially, these clips just represented that Trump was full of hot air and used the city as a scapegoat to push an agenda because constantly repeating a false narrative to his supporters allows it to become increasingly real to them.

Clips of various conservative pundits were also played with each one commenting that the city’s violence belonged to President Obama or going out of their way to note that Obama was from Chicago.  That therein lies the heart of this narrative.  For Trump, Chicago is a target because the city didn’t vote for him.  For the larger conservative base, it is a racist talking point.  It is much easier for them to spew their bigotry under the guise of controlling gun crime than it is for them to actually come out against the city’s minority population.  Noah even joked about this saying “I get it. When there’s shootings, Obama is from Chicago.  All the other times he’s from Kenya. Now it makes sense. These people don’t care about Chicago’s murder rates. They care about how they can use Chicago to score political points.”

However, Noah pointed out that this narrative has long existed since before Obama occupied the Oval Office.  He played a clip from the children’s television series Sharkey & George, a French and Canadian cartoon where fish shoot each other in the underwater city of Seacago.  While the violence in Chicago is the current hot button issue many conservatives use to disrupt gun control legislation or to rally against people of color, all their information is wrong and has been for a long time.  In recent years, violent crimes have reduced across the city.  And not only that, and I cannot reiterate this enough, there are several other cities that have a higher murder rate but do not get criticized the same way that Chicago does.  This is a level of racism that has been brewing for a few generations which has become so ingrained in our dialogue.

While the white men in suits continue to degrade Chicago with their racism and misinformation, there are those who have successfully worked towards reducing violent and gun crime in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.  In a produced segment, Roy Wood, Jr. visited with the Cease Fire community anti-violence group that operates in the South Side.  These are dedicated individuals who believe that mediated dialogue is the key to reducing the violence in Chicago.  The members of Cease Fire directly engage with gang members drug dealers, and other young men in these communities with the goal of deescalating violence and finding a peaceful resolution.  In his report, Wood noted that violence had gone down in all the areas where Cease Fire is active.  Those are amazing results and it is great that The Daily Show used their national platform to provide visibility to such an amazing organization while also actively working against the misinformed narrative about Chicago.

For the third segment, a small riser was brought out with a table and two chairs.  The guest that evening was Common.  As an activist and rapper, Common has used his platform as a celebrity to address that Chicago is a beautiful and diverse city that has more to offer than crime statistics.  Common’s interview was very serious considering the show’s comedic tone, but the message was real and sincere.  Common spoke candidly and honestly about his work inspiring young black people and supported his belief that understanding and support was the way to stop violence in black communities.  He even shared that the support he was given at a young age was what motivated him to succeed and to use that success to suggest others.

Common is such an eloquent and passionate speaker.  I remember, back in 2011, working with him at Corliss High School in the South Side.  At that time, I was working for a black history non-profit and we had held an annual event where black leaders would go back to their school, or a school in their area, and talk to middle school and high school aged students of color about the importance of committing to their education which can elevate their community as well as their well-being. Many of the same things Common said back then came out during last night’s taping and still ring true.  The violence facing the people in these communities are incredibly serious.  A lot of work has been done in the last six years since I saw Common speak, but more must be done to reverse the damaging effects perpetrated by the current administration and conservative pundits.

Common also spoke about his music and using it as a platform to share his message.  Before he came to the stage, a clip from Andra Day’s song “Stand Up for Something” played.  Featuring Common, Day’s song is the signature track from the soundtrack for Marshall, a film about Thurgood Marshall who served as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.  Common discussed the song and how, like earlier soundtrack contributions that earned him a Golden Globe and Academy Award, he uses music as his platform to share enlightening ideas and to highlight the achievements of those who stand up and do good for all.

Andra Day is relatively new on the music scene debuting in 2015.  With the message she shares in her music, and with the support of Common, she’ll continue doing great things.  “Stand Up for Something” is an anthem that inspiring and what this country needs right now.  We are currently in a dark time for this country with an administration that is determined to silence many voices.  I have lived in Chicago for seven years.  It has become my home.  I am tired of hearing this great city put down for bigoted and unfounded reasons.  And that’s why I try to help and fight against that vitriol.  For those with the power to do so, we must stand behind and elevate those voices.  They stand for something and we need to give them the room to do so.  With that understand and support, we can make that change we long to see.

“be your bro” – those darlins (2011)

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Musician deaths can be shocking for many of us for many distinct reasons.  The language of music is universal and impacts each of us.  Various genres, bands, or songs give us unspoken meanings that can change as quickly as the weather or become an unmoving representation for our lives.  That fluidity music possesses to affect people different at any given time is what gives it power.  Music becomes the backdrop for singular moments or whole uprooting changes and gives reference point for who we are at any given time.

Last week, Jessi Zazu passed away at the age of 28 from a public battle with cervical cancer.  Zazu was the leader singer of Those Darlins, a female alternative rock band from Nashville, Tennessee.  Those Darlins wanted were hard-hitting and wanted to show the world that music coming out of Nashville could have edge and be hip.  As early as 2011, the band was absolutely exemplifying that and even being featured by organizations such as NPR.  This was an exciting group of young 20-something women who were set to light the music world on fire.

Unfortunately, the band would disband in 2015.  And at the end of 2016, Zazu publicly shared her diagnosis.  Her cervical cancer was caused by HPV.  In the same rebellious spirit in which she led Those Darlins, Zazu shaved her hair off in a bold embrace of a new chapter of her life.  Music would have to take a backseat as Zazu pursued chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer.  Despite putting up a brave and courageous fight, she passed away on September 13th.

When I heard the news about Zazu’s death, it did impact me.  The band was based in Nashville and I was travelling to Nashville frequently in 2009 and 2010 for work.  I wasn’t aware of the band at that time, but I understood their desire to shake of the city’s country image.  Nashville is full to the brim with exciting musical talent and legendary venues.  It is a music lover’s paradise, but it struggles with the perception many outsiders have due to the overwhelming pervasiveness of country music there.  However, underneath all the cowboy hats and snakeskin boots, Nashville has a punk heart.

Occupying the same city at the same time doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.  However, what affected me more was that Those Darlins was the first band I had seen in Chicago.   It was 2011.  All in the last week of February, I flew from Alaska into Nashville, drove to Chicago to find an apartment, drove back to Kentucky to pack in one day, and then move everything to start a new life.

Once I got everything organized and settled, it was time to figure out the city.  I love live music and sought opportunities to see bands that never come to Alaska and who I would miss in Nashville.  Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears were scheduled to play Double Door on April 2nd.  Tickets weren’t that expensive and I really wanted to see this band.  I had played cuts off their first studio album all the time on the college radio station where I volunteered.  I knew they would be a good live show and I wanted to hear cuts I loved and new tracks from the album they had just released.

While Black Joe Lewis would be the first concert ticket I bought since moving to Chicago, they wouldn’t be the first live act.  Nope.  That honor would go to their opener.  And that opener was Those Darlins.

I was a few feet from the front of the stage and blown away by the performance.  The band packed in so much energy and ferocity.  It was like they played as if their lives depended on it; as if this was the last chance to prove they had what it took to succeed.  It is disappointing when you a see a band, especially a band that is new to you, just phone it in.  But, that wasn’t the case here.  This was great raw music that told me that I had made the right choice moving to Chicago and that I would never tire of exploring what it had to offer.

I don’t remember the exact set list, but I do know they were promoting their new album Screws Get Loose.  While I cannot remember every song they played, I do remember highlights that ar3e forever burned into my memory.  “Be Your Bro,” one of my favorites from that album, I remember was performed with an awe-inspiring intensity.  The song is about a girl wanting to befriend a boy, but the boy only wants from her what young boy wants.  Zazu sings about playing in the mud with this boy, but he is too distracted in his quest to get into her pants.  The song is great on the album, but it was a special thrill to see it live.  The timeless tale of girl tired of boys’ shit was delivered with fire and fury and looked as though performing the song on stage was a cathartic experience for the band.  And I’m sure it was.  This was a badass group of hard-rocking women and they wanted to be heard.  They wanted their share and no one to tell them no.

Sadly, the was the only time I ever saw Those Darlins live.  I had other opportunities, but passed them up because of life’s various obstacles and obligations.  Given the band’s disbandment and Zazu’s proceeding death, I wished I made the time.  Of course, nothing could touch that initial performance I saw. As my first live band in Chicago, that is a significant memory.  And while seeing additional shows would be fun, they wouldn’t carry the same emotional impact as that first time when I was in my early 20s, fresh-faced in a new city, and ready for anything.

“writin’ on the wall” – boscoe (1973)

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Like many people around the country, I’ve been upset by the violent events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend.  When white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the Alt-Right descended upon the city to preach their own brand of hatred and bigotry, violence erupted resulting in many being injured and the death of three people including Heather Heyer.

Before the wounds of Charlottesville have even begun to heal, the painful feeling was only exacerbated by the President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the violence perpetrated by his supporters.  A few days after reading a half-assed generic statement from a teleprompter, he showed his true colors yesterday when he coined the term “Alt-Left” and refused to condemn the violent white supremacists at Charlottesville.  He cited that both sides were to blame and that he demanded he have all the facts before making any kind of statement.

The incident at Charlottesville had occurred 72 hours before his press conference yesterday, but Trump still insisted on not issuing a formal statement until he felt satisfied that he had all the facts.  Beyond what he did say about the (non-existent) “Alt-Left” going to the protest armed and without a permit, it is also troubling to consider what was not said.  Trump, the man who is currently holding the highest office in the country, did not sincerely vocalize any condemnation of his supporters for the chaos and madness they caused.

Trump’s psyche has not been hard to understand.  In his world, there is no “right” and no “wrong.”  His assessment about your value to him is only determined by how well you like him.  If you praise and support his actions and words, you are “good” and deserving of his respect and attention.  If you are critical of him, or simply did not vote for him, you are “bad.”

He has exemplified this view countless times, but yesterday’s press conference was the worst.  Reporters and members of the press were asking simple questions about Trump’s feelings about the Charlottesville violence.  During this, Trump pointed aggressively at them calling them fake, questioning their integrity and honesty as reporters and journalists, and made statements aligned himself with the violent rhetoric and actions of his reporters in Charlottesville.  By saying that both sides were to blame, he made a clear statement comparing violent Neo-Nazis to people who wish not to be hurt by violent Neo-Nazis.

The Charlottesville violence and death of Heather Heyer hit me so hard.  Since then, within the last few days, I still haven’t really found my balance yet.  Like many people, I couldn’t stop looking at the news.  Videos of fights and photos of armed racists were all over my social media feeds.  It was inescapable.  As I watched video footage of unknown militias marching, men holding shields with white nationalist imagery chanting “fuck you faggots,” and Neo-Nazis proudly wearing the swastika.

As I watched this, I felt a fear I hadn’t felt since the 9/11 attacks.  Our country has gone through some difficult times over the last 16 years.  However, at no point did I ever fear for my safety, the well-being of my friends and family, and the security of this country.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to be optimistic about where we are going.  And that is because I have no idea where this country is going.  Since Donald Trump’s election win last November, our state of affairs have steadily declined.  The threat of political violence is always present to the point where this insane discourse is becoming normalized.

The fear and anger I have felt since Saturday has put me in a place I do not like to be.  Reading through all the commentary and posts on social media, I got caught in the mire of the sickening depravity that is the Alt-Right’s social media presence.  I started engaging with white supremacists online shaming them for advocating additional violence and murder.  I knew you couldn’t reason with these people, so my goal was to call them out for their asinine behavior and holding them accountable.

I quickly realized how naïve that was.  By engaging with this scum, I had opened myself to receiving targeted threats of violence, death threats, called names aimed at my masculinity, and other targeted attacks.

Frankly, it was strange and fascinating.  I took their comments about committing murder and laughing at the death of Heather Heyer seriously, but I could not take the people behind those words seriously.  All of these disgusting people had one thing in common beyond their hateful rhetoric: they are all cowards who hide behind monikers and Pepe avatars.  They are afraid to show themselves as they spew their garbage.  They hide behind their racist frog meme as they call you faggot and make statements about how afraid you are to meet them.  Real tough talk coming from someone hiding behind a cartoon.

It got to a point where I found the exchanges fascinating and comical.  I would call out someone’s racism and that they were too afraid to show their true selves.  And the only thing that would happen is that they would send me some meme implying committing violence or murder against me or others.  Or that they would send their supporters from multiple states to come find me.  No matter how you looked at it, they were just losers throwing cartoons at me.  One even used my picture as their profile picture thus making me the representative face of their vitriol because they are too frightened to use their own.

These disgusting social media fiends are actually afraid.  They hide behind their memes out of fear of being “doxxed” (term to describe when a person’s identity and contact information has been discovered and shared).  When doxxed, their hatred is shown to their family, schools, and places of employment who will then respond appropriately.  These racists don’t want to lose their jobs or be expelled, so they use anonymity as their only weapon.

As I engaged further, I learned so much.  In addition to the psychology of these pathetic losers, I also learned some of their tactics they use to further spread hate.  In the spirit that these people are truly frightened of being discovered, I noticed that most of the users I engaged with would change their identities every day or two.  This included changing their profile picture, profile name, and social media handle in order to make it harder to trace their hateful rhetoric.  To do so properly, you would have to track them with databases and a lot of screenshots.  But, who has the time to follow racists assholes (besides me for the few days that I did).

When I got bogged down with this over the weekend, I spent a few days treading through their shit.  I didn’t care about the threats of attacks.  I was on a search and destroy mission.  My goal was to engage these people, discover who they were, and make them pay.  Now, I don’t know how to dox someone properly.  I’m not a hacker.  That’s how this stuff gets done.  But, I was able to find out who one of the guys was and called his university’s police to report the violent threats he was making in relation to the Charlottesville.

I tried to tell myself that taking down one of the people was worth it.  However, I know that isn’t the case.  Engaging with anonymous assholes on social media is the not an effective way to deal with what is happening right now.  We are all still healing from this weekend and processing what is happening.  Between the violent white supremacist gathering and Trump’s statements (or lack thereof), it is easy to get emotional and lost in confusion.

Never in a million years would I be telling myself in 2017 that this country needs to stand together to take down literal Nazis.  Trump and his administration has emboldened a movement with a specific agenda. An agenda that says that racial purity is required to make this country better.  And many of them want to achieve this through violence.

The most frustrating aspect of their movement is their quickness to play victim when it is convenient.  They will gather, carry tiki torches symbolizing torches and pitchforks, claim their white heritage gives them dominance over this land, and vocalize that any non-white people, homosexuals, and women should submit to their will.  However, stand up to them and they cower by claiming the legality of their actions.

They remind me of those kids who want to get a reaction out of someone by hovering their hands over the other person and saying “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you. You can’t get mad because I’m not touching you!”  And the moment that you smack away their hand for invading their personal space, they cry and play the victim as they condemn you for your reaction.   So when these white supremacists gather to saying awful, violent things about non-white people and they are met with resistance, they cry that they were only gathering peacefully and that the antifas broke the law.  They say the resistance didn’t have a permit or that they are violating their freedom of speech.  They deflect, pass blame, and change the narrative to make sure, in their minds, that they are legally protected.  Their goal is to antagonize someone so much that their reaction can be spun to reflect their narrative, embolden their supporters, and gather centrist support who are too stupid to see the difference.

There can be no room for centrists.  If you are someone of sound body and mind watching the violence unfolding on your television or phone and you cannot tell the difference between those who advocate violence and those who wish to live free from violence, then you are a complete fucking moron that is ruining this country.  Much like the actual Nazis in the Third Reich, the Nazis in Charlottesville are trying to appeal to centrists.  Their movement, which started out as a fringe before picking up mainstream support, relies on recruiting people on the fence.  Before, they were too weak to take on the mainstream.  So, to gain strength, they rely on the stupid who cannot pick a side. Slowly one by one until they are now a force that must be dealt with seriously.

In 1973, Boscoe released their only studio album.  Initially only pressing 500 copies, their eponymous studio debut became a lost record of the South Side of Chicago’s rich culture of black music.  Such a profound musical statemen remained obscure until being reissued by Numero Group in 2007.  That is when I bought my copy.  A decade later after my purchase and 44 years after recording the album, the message remains as relevant today as ever.

“Writin’ On the Wall,” running over eight minutes, is a powerful condemnation to those who cannot see for themselves what is happening.  While the context of the recording in 1973 was about the passing of Malcom X, the message of black America struggling for peace still carries on.  As white supremacists battled against Black Lives Matters protestors and chanting for their death, it is so difficult for me to understand how someone cannot see the truth when it is right in front of them.  And for our political leaders to carry a message that “both sides” are responsible for our current violent discourse, it only makes the situation worse.

We’re still healing from Charlotte and I don’t know what to do.  As ready as I am to fight, I am also afraid of what the next day will bring.  And I feel that way because things will only get worse before they get better.  I know where I stand and my enemy knows where they stand, but people who stand in the middle silently are the ones who will shift the direction this nation will go.  And if they can’t see the writing on the wall, then goddamn them.

“rebel girl” – bikini kill (1993)

History is a subject I always enjoy.  There are a lot of a great stories there, but also opportunities to reflect on how things have changed.  Whether this change is about you or society at large, the fact we can trace the evolution of how things progress, and document that, really fascinates me.

History, though, can be subjective based on who exactly is writing it.  History is written by the winners.  I’m thankful for all the ways we can capture history due to technological advancements.  Photographs, video, the Internet.  These are all great tools in capturing our world and documenting our presence and contribution for future generations.

So, it Is crazy to me with such great tools to record our lives, there are people who still challenge the truth while it is staring directly at them in face.  There is even a new buzzword to describe one’s blatant refusal to acknowledge reality: alternative facts.  Referring to something as “alternative facts” is an intellectually inept way to dismiss a truth if it doesn’t fit within a specific narrative you are writing.  Manipulating audiences with the introduction of alternative facts becomes a way to write history.  In our current political climate, it appears as though the current presidential administration isn’t interested in doing what is best for everyone in the country.  It is about winning.  And in order to win, you have to brand and market your ideas in a way that gets more people on your side.  Because, in the end, it isn’t about what actually happened.  It is about who finished first and on top and that’s when “truth” becomes reality.

We are always going through history and we are always experiencing history changing.  By and large, we don’t recognize we went through something very significant until years later because, sometimes, the historical impact of something takes years, or even generations, to make sense and provide context.  However, there are singular moments that define us and the world.  Moments where we know instantly that we will never be the same again.  And it is up to us to decide how those moments define us for better or worse.

I didn’t watch Trump’s inauguration speech or dinner.  I ignored all footage, reports, and social media posts that directly involved him.  However, I watched the footage of the protest in D.C.  Thousands of people marched and protested Trump’s presidency.  However, what took the spotlight off the large crowds were the few extremists who vandalized and behaved violently.  All of the news reports focused on the window smashing and the fires being lit.  Between the demagogue swearing in and the violent civil unrest in the streets, it was looking like a dark day.

The footage had me worried because I was scheduled to march the next day in Chicago as part of a nationwide Women’s March.  The Chicago Tribune anticipated that 50,000 people who show up in Grant Park to march a few blocks to Daley Plaza.  While I was impressed with that number, it seemed lame to have them march such a short distance.  However, it would be manageable and that would be a good thing considering the unease I felt after watching the violence in D.C.

Throughout the morning, in Grant Park, there were speakers and performers scheduled prior to the march.  I was with my friend Carolyn and we were running late, so we missed all that.  As we left the trains, I was reading a report on WGN that the total number of people was 150,000 and that march would be officially cancelled.  I was so stunned to hear that the number of people attending was three times more than estimate from the day prior.  We left the station and were immediately met with swarms of men and women waving signs and sporting fashionably cute hats with kitty ears; their pussyhats.

The march has just begun when we arrived.  Immediately, I was overwhelmed with a joyous spirit.  The energy and electricity in the air was nearly tangible.  We headed west down Van Buren chanting and looking at all the creative, colorful, and powerful signs.  Signs that could be funny, signs that were poignant, and signs sharing personal stories.  So many beautiful signs.

Carolyn and I ate cookies with frosting decorated like a shit in Trump’s image and cookies with Obama’s famous logo.  We turned north on Wabash and marched under the L train.  The large crowd, like a snake, meandered through the Loop on Jackson, La Salle, Madison, and finally to the famous Michigan Avenue where we marched under the shadow of the infamous Trump Tower along the Chicago river.  However, we didn’t stop there.  The crowd had already veered off the approved path for an already officially canceled march, so it wouldn’t hurt to take it as far as we could go.  So, we marched up State before Carolyn and I broke away at State & Chicago for lunch.

The day couldn’t have been better.  The sun was shining and was unusually warm for a January day.  The protests were larger than expected.  Most importantly, it was a peaceful protest.  Conflicting reports were running until the final estimate recorded that over 250,000 people protested in Chicago.  And not only that, there was a not a single arrest.  So many women marched in this country that it became the biggest protest in U.S. history.  And not only that, but women marched and protested on every single continent. Everything about that event was the exact opposite over the depressing train wreck in D.C. the day before where people rioted, were arrested, and the rain put a damper on spirits as our country watched a vile man take the oath of office for the presidency.

The day before, I had finished a book entitled Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.  It was the next book to read for a music book club and I didn’t know much about riot grrrl.  However, how fitting it would be to finish it the day before the Women’s March.

The title of this book comes from a mantra championed by the Riot Grrrl movement, an underground feminist punk group, that challenges the patriarchy within music and culture while creating a safe space for women and girls to participate while also giving them a venue to express themselves. The Riot Grrrl movement originated in 1991 in Olympia, Washington before generating a second hub in Washington, D.C. In these groups, young girls and women formed bands, created zines, and held group discussions that encouraged sisterhood and positive reinforcement of self. Out of the movement, bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were formed as a musically engaging way to address issues that plagued women including rape, domestic abuse, and sexuality. These punk rock shows and zines provided an outlet and a voice for women and all the inherent subcultures within to challenge not only the “boyocracy,” but the outdated ideals of 70s feminists in favor of a more radical and progressive style of feminism, third-wave feminism, a concept that was more focused on the individual and inclusivity.

Bikini Kill gets credit for inventing the riot grrrl movement, but this is something they refuse to accept.  Regardless, they made powerful music with a powerful message.  Released in 1993, “Rebel Girl” is Bikini Kill’s most memorable and serves as the unofficial anthem of the riot grrrl movement.  In this hardwired punk classic, Kathleen Hanna sings about a girl in the neighborhood who is so confident that she seems to own the entire area.  Hanna is enamored by this girl and desires to be her best friend.  In the spirit of riot grrrl, Hanna wants sisterhood and to crush all the critics of this queen of the neighborhood.  The song has rebellious spirit with a message of tolerance and elevating women.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that song during the march.  And given that I just finished that book the day prior, it added more significance to the day’s events.   I went there to support all of the important women in my life and to express solidarity with women all over the world.  It is a moment I’ll always cherish and I feel honored to have march alongside such brave and brilliant women.  In an age where our written history is at stake, I am happy with the choice I made of where to stand.  Revolution girl style now!

“you’ll be back” – jonathan groff (2015)

r-7640983-1445734288-9020-jpegFor a couple of years, I didn’t really celebrate my birthday.  At random points, I would go out with a girlfriend or a friend to dinner. Not every year.  Though, when I did, it was typically a quiet affair.  I decided to change that last year.  I invited close to a dozen friends to eat at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago.  Not only that, I carried out a little letter writing campaign where I asked them to send me a letter and I would reply.  I got quite a few letters which was nice and it was fun to engage in a hobby that is hardly practiced anymore.  It made me feel more connected because it takes time, energy, and thought to write a letter.

This year, I wanted to do something different.  I still went to dinner with a few friends.  The Sunday before my birthday, we went to Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo and then had amazing burgers at Kuma’s Too.  It was a great night.  But, that was a precursor to a much more exclusive plan for how I was spending my actual birthday.  I was going to go to the biggest event on the planet; Hamilton.

Hamilton became a monumental success that I don’t think anyone anticipated.  First, it was the story of one of America’s founding fathers that history has largely ignored though we benefit from his tireless contributions to our country.  Second, the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, only had only created one show prior.  Third, Miranda took historical figures who were white and cast Hispanic and black actors instead.  Fourth, most of the music contained hip-hop influence and even a couple of rap battles. And finally, the musical has plays on the fact Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies and feature strong themes about the contributions immigrants have made to America.  Given the current political climate including the rise of racial problems, white supremacy, and right-wing nationalism, those are all very bold directions.  But given that this show was about a founding father many were not very knowledgeable about, that’s the in.  Miranda couldn’t have done this show about someone more historically precious like Abraham Lincoln.

Tickets went on sale in June and I got a pair with relative ease.  Friends and coworkers were either complaining that they couldn’t get tickets or had to wait hours. I considered myself lucky that I was able to get two to such a hot show. And it was nice that I got them for my birthday which was completely my goal. I had told a friend prior that if I were to get tickets, then I would take her.  She didn’t think I would get them, so imagine her surprise when she found out.

For the most part, I had actually forgotten about the show.  When you buy tickets to a show six months in advance, you don’t think about it.  It just seems so far away and as if it will always be that way.  Of course, I went through the rush when I actually confirmed the tickets.  But, that went away shortly and I didn’t get excited again until the day of the show.

When my birthday came, my social media feed was blowing up with people wishing me a happy birthday.  I got calls and texts. It was all very nice.  Work had ended early for me because I went to a holiday party.  After, I grabbed a cab to meet my friend at a famous Chicago restaurant.  There were some issues with seating us, so we just left and toured the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza.  I was treated to a bratwurst and we walked around and looked at chocolates and ornaments.  Frankly, it was more my style than the restaurant.  It couldn’t have been more perfect.  After, we walked to the theatre and anxiously waited for the show.

I purposefully remained a little distant from Hamilton in the months leading up to when I could see the show.  I heard one or two songs, but I avoided listening to the soundtrack.  I didn’t watch any of the specials or documentaries.  And I didn’t ‘t read about the performances.  I did talk with people who saw the show.  While they shared some highlights with me, they were sure not to spoil anything major.

In short, the show was the best musical I had ever seen.  I even cried a little which I had never done at a musical before.  The reaction I had was incredibly strong.  I was a little concerned about the hype.  I was thinking, there’s no way this show is THAT good.  It can be that good and it was.

I won’t go into too much detail about the show.  I don’t want to spoil anything for people.  All the songs were great and many of them are still stuck in my head.  However, one song keeps coming up more than the others.  King George III, portrayed by Jonathan Groff, performed three songs with just himself on the stage.  However, it was his first performance, ”You’ll Be Back,” that I’ve been listening to more than the other songs.  Frankly, it isn’t even the best song on the soundtrack.  But the song and his performance has a lot of symbolism that is clever and poignant.

The representation of King George III was quite interesting.  We all know the story of the American Revolution.  George III, in the musical, treats it as a spat with a former lover.  He tells the colonies that they’ll be crawling back to him.  That it is hard to run a country.  That he loves them so much.   It is all playfully done and quite clever because it isn’t so much as a song about ex-lovers as a delusion of grandeur on George’s part with not so thinly veiled threats behind his declarations of love.  He is the abusive partner in the relationship.  You will come back because if you don’t, he’ll send a heavily armed battalion to murder your loved ones.  That is how he shows he cares and is worthy of your praise.

Beyond how the character of George III is portrayed, there is deeper symbolism present. Groff, a member of the original Broadway cast, is the only white performer who sings.  That might not seem like it means much at first, but take a closer look.  Broadway and musical theatre has typically been a white person’s game.  Groff’s role represents the old way of doing Broadway; the traditional way.  Miranda’s stylistic choice to cast Hispanic and black actors for the other roles symbolizes the new way; the changing of the guard.  Miranda is saying the face of Broadway is changing.  George III represented an urge to resist change; an urge that many theater goers feel as they become accustomed to the how Broadway is evolving.

Musically, Groff’s songs as King George III also represent the old Broadway traditions.  It is completely obvious how stylistically different his numbers are compared to the rest of the show.  While the rest of the show features hip-hop performances, soul solos, and rap battles, Groff’s performances recall the old days of show tunes.  It has a 60s British pop flare with an arrangement that is reminiscent of bands from that era like Herman’s Hermits or Gerry & the Pacemakers.  This character, in the portrayal and the performance, has deep roots that serve as the perfect antithesis to the new wave that Miranda is unveiling with Hamilton and the rest of the American Revolution heroes.

What makes this so incredibly intriguing is that all of this is done considering how little stage time Groff has.  Three songs.  Less than nine minutes.  No interactions with other singers.  His physical presence is as minimal as a supporting character can be, but his contributions are immense.

As I said earlier, Hamilton is full of amazing songs.  There is hardly a weak point in the entire soundtrack. Certain songs may call to you at certain times.  I definitely have my favorites because of the ideas and messages they represent.  Plus, they’re catchy as hell.  However, “You’ll Be Back” serves as a palate cleanser that is well-thought out in it’s execution, delivery, and underlying meaning.  As soon as you get an opportunity to see Hamilton, take it.

“2120 south michigan avenue” – the rolling stones (1964)

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When I moved to Chicago in 2011, I spent my first three years working for a non-profit in the South Loop.  During my lunch breaks, I liked to walk around the neighborhood.  If you’ve never been to the South Loop, there isn’t much to see.  With condo buildings up and down Michigan Avenue, the whole area is very grey.  So much concrete that it was jarring to see these shrines of modernity jutting out of an otherwise crumbling landscape.

However, you can find little pockets that are quite interesting.  The southern part of Grant Park is just off the Roosevelt red line. The Museum Campus isn’t too far away either.  Even in Prairie District, a little neighborhood pocketed at 18th and Michigan, you’ll find some green space as well as some historical points of interest.  However, for me, the real gem of the South Loop was located a few blocks down from where I worked.  Amidst all the high rises and urban decay, you’ll find a little haven located at 2120 South Michigan.

Phil Chess, one of the founders of Chess Records, passed away this week.  Chess Records, the legendary record label, could be found a few different places in Chicago.  However, none of the locations were as famous as the one at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.  In 1950, Chess Records was founded by Leonard and Phil Chess.  Polish immigrants, Phil and his brother Leonard would go on to develop and support a supremely talented roster of artists including Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and Howlin Wolf.  These artists who recorded for the greatest rhythm & blues label of all time would not only help lay the foundation for rock and roll, but also influence the next generation of artists who took the form and elevated it to new aesthetic and commercial heights.

One group inspired by the blues records coming out of Chess were the pasty clan of Englishmen known as the Rolling Stones.  In June 1964, the group went to Chicago to record at Chess and to meet some of their heroes.  These Chess recordings would appear on their Five by Five EP released in August that year.  While the Rolling Stones would grow to be one of the biggest rock bands of all time, their beginnings were humble and born out of their fandom of Chicago blues music.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is a bluesy instrumental homage to Chess Records.  What started with Bill Wyman practicing a bass riff became a full-on jam featuring the entire group (with no vocals, Mick Jagger is credited with the tambourine).  While this isn’t the best track by the Rolling Stones, it does stand out.  Musically, it is very much in the style of the magic Leonard and Phil were pressing on wax.  Also, it is a direct tribute to the label and it’s sound.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is by no way the best, or even remotely close to best, song recorded at Chess.  We’re talking about the studio that released “At Last,” “I’m A Man,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Maybellene,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coohie Man,” and so many more great rhythm & blues classics.  It seems a little peculiar to choose an obscure Rolling Stones instrumental as my song tribute to the passing of Phil Chess when considering the scores of better songs on the label.  I’ll write about those songs eventually, but I got to thinking about the influence Chess Records had.  The men and women who recorded those classic songs deserve every ounce of credit they can get.  Their talent made rock and roll what it is today.  All the monumentally successful artists who were inspired by and ripped off Chess owe their success to Leonard and Phil.  It is a shame that these black artists who built the form didn’t become as big as artists like Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones, but that is how the story goes.  Since they were black, their audience and commercial appeal were limited.  It took a couple scrawny English group to take their sound and deliver it a mass audience.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is merely a footnote in the great Chess catalog, but it is a prime example of how influential the label was for the development of rock and roll.  Even if it had to come in the form of scrawny English guys ripping off black musicians, the sound had to be heard.

Chess Records became defunct in 1975.  Now, if you were to walk down Michigan Avenue, you’ll find Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in it’s place.  It is an organization designed to help black musicians rightfully reclaim the music they created that would later be stolen by white rock groups.  The Blues Heaven Foundation works to educate students and the public on blues music including it’s history and the workings of the music business.  It is a place I love and where I would walk past almost every day on my way to work.  It is important for what used to be there, and what it continues to be.

 

“close to me” – the cure (1985)

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My mother and stepdad flew to Chicago to visit me for the weekend.  I always enjoy their visits.  While they normally visit over Labor Day weekend, they decided to switch things up and come in June instead.  Why?  Because the legendary band the Cure were playing at UIC Pavilion!  My mother has been a fan of the Cure for over 35 years, really since their inception.  Yet she had never seen them perform live.  This was not only an excellent time to spend time with family, but also check off a band on her bucket list.  Win-win.

I saw the Cure for the first time at Riot Fest during the fall of 2014.  For those not savvy on music festivals or the big to dos of Chicago, Riot Fest is a punky alternative to other music festivals like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza.  That year, the Cure were headlining.  I had been listening to them since I started high school, but had never seen them live.  This is primarily for two reasons; 1) I didn’t live in or near areas that regularly got large acts, and 2) the Cure didn’t tour often and when they did, it was to go to major metropolitan areas.

When it comes to outdoor music festivals, I’m not a fan.  The weather can be bad, the crowd can be unruly, and the prices can be unjustifiable considering I would typically only know a handful of bands.  However, more and more festivals are popping and up and they’re getting bigger every year.  Business models for bands have changed drastically in the last decade or so.  With many larger acts, they can actually make more money by only playing a handful of festivals as opposed to going out on a proper tour.  The Cure has been doing that for years and I figured that was the only way I could’ve seen them.  So, I sucked it up and paid approximately $70 for a single-day pass to Riot Fest just to see the Cure.

That day at Riot Fest was long and boring for the most part.  I’m a punctual person, so I arrived early anticipating long lines.  Upon arrival, the lines weren’t that long, but I waited in them for over an hour listening to the war stories of the previous few days including torrential downpours and awesome rock shows.  I spent some time reviewing the line-up for the day.  And really, there was no one I really cared about seeing until Patti Smith took the stage at around 5 PM.  When the gates opened, I walked around for a bit to get a layout of the vendors and stages and other happenings at the festival.

I checked out a few bands briefly, but they really weren’t my thing.  The whole experience for the first half of the day was boring.  I was alone, didn’t care about the bands that were playing, and dealing with some personal issues that had happened within the last two weeks; I had moved out of an ex-girlfriend’s place and lost of my job the same week.  Though, I could see how things could be fun.  However, it wasn’t clicking for me at the time.

Patti Smith was playing right before the Cure on the same stage.  I had seen her the previous year at the Vic.  And if I wanted a good spot, I would need to be in the area to see the band before her which was Tegan & Sara.  I wasn’t quite familiar with their songs, but I really dug them.  Most importantly, I got to get a spot that was good for that show and when it would be over, squeeze a little closer to the front for Patti Smith and then repeat for the Cure.

Patti put on an excellent and raucous rock and roll show, but I had to go to the bathroom really bad.  So, I left my amazing spot to go use the restroom.  I hurried back to the stage and settled in.  I would have to wait for over an hour for the show.  While my spot wasn’t as great as it was before, it wasn’t bad.  It was adequate.

I was so ready for the Cure to play because they were the only band I had to see and the only reason why I came to Riot Fest.  The closer is came to time for them the play, the crowd got bigger and more packed.  I was squished, hot, hungry, thirsty, a little lonely, but I didn’t care.  I was going to see an amazing band forget about my recent troubles for a few hours.

There were a group of guys standing behind me acting like jackasses before the show, but I did my best to ignore them.  One of them was complaining about having to pee.  The crowd was so huge and compact that movement was extremely limited.  You couldn’t move your arms let alone dance.  In a desperate move not to lose his place and awkwardly swim through the sea of sweaty bodies, he decided to pee into a water bottle.  Not a bad move.  I couldn’t blame him given the situation, though it still really annoyed me because some guy was peeing a foot behind me.  When he was done, he dropped the bottle onto the ground.  First of all, I hate litter bugs and I’ve had moments where I confront someone for their blatant disregard for the planet.  However, this situation was made even worse because he forgot to put the cap back on the bottle thus splashing piss on the back of my leg.  To say I went nuclear was an understatement.  I had spent all day dealing with festival bullshit only to see this one band and I wasn’t going to let this one jackass ruin it.  I turned around and angrily confronted him in a way only someone so tired, miserable, and heartbroken could do.  His friends didn’t even support him as he took a few steps back stuttering some excuse about how he didn’t pee in that bottle.  To see the fear and embarrassment in his eyes was extremely cathartic.

When the band took the stage, it was one of the best shows I had ever seen.  The melancholy lyrics and new wave instrumentals were exactly what I needed to salve my wounds. Robert Smith wasn’t very personable and didn’t address the audience.  It was strictly business.  One song after another without missing a beat. At the end of the day, it was worth it.

Fast forward two years later and I’m at UIC Pavilion sitting in a seat which was a comfortable change of pace from the last time I saw the band.  It was great seeing them in an actual venue because I didn’t think they would go on a proper tour outside of a festival.  Smith and the crew played a lot of hits, several deep cuts from Bloodflowers, and even played a new song that hasn’t been released. My mother was extremely excited and yelling when her favorite songs came on and screaming requests for others.  It made me happy to see her so excited to finally see one of her favorite bands.

Though not my favorite song of the Cure’s, I’ve always been partial to “Close to Me” from 1985’s The Head On the Door.  It has a playful melody and a cool bassline.  It stands out for me most of all for the music video.  It is one of my favorite music videos of all time.  In it, there is an armoire on the edge of a cliff.  The band is inside playing the music on found objects; the bass is being plucked on a comb.  Eventually, the armoire falls over into the sea.  The water is filling up inside and the band is struggling to not drown.  It is delightfully playful and visually interesting.

Things have greatly improved for me since the fall of 2014, but I’ll never forget that show for being an escape.  This show was fantastic as well, but for different reasons.  Sitting comfortably in a seat in a building has it’s advantages.  But I earned the show last time.  I was on a mission and had put up with so much to complete it.  Though, I still don’t like large music festivals.

 

Note:  the proper video isn’t on Youtube, so you’ll have to just settle with this one with a weird picture-in-picture effect