Editor’s note: A decade ago, back in medieval times before the multifarious wonders of the weblog revolution trickled down to over-the-hill technophobes, long-in-the-tooth Luddites and long-dead ballplayers like me, I squandered many hours filling up old-fashioned spiral notebooks with lots and lots and lots of indecipherable writings and unintelligible scribblings.
In other words, those notebooks are where a lot of trite and banal thoughts go to die. Good for them, right? That being said, I am embarking on what’s sure to be an aborted campaign to unearth some of those stories and dump them here, for the benefit of no one else but me. Which I understand is the sole purpose of a blog. Here’s one from 2002:
July 20, 2002, 4 p.m. Central Daylight Time.
Some days I think I really should’ve been an accountant. I lack the stomach for this shit.
So here I sit, in the supranational corporate safety of the Starbucks on West Peterson, sipping, nay, sucking on my refreshing, reassuring mocha brownie frappuccino.
Because it is hot out there. My first contact with the unvarnished and raw bhicago blues, an idiom that had sounded so compelling on 33 1/3 rpm records and came off so atmospheric and intriguing in books, and I retreat to the neighborhood coffee beanery, tail planted firmly between my legs. What a hopeless sham of a travesty of an endless tide of bullshit I am. Am I. What a piece of work is me.
It was all well and good until some drunk dude threatened to shoot me.
One second I was hanging blithely at the last bastion of the old-school blues, Maxwell Street Uptown Polish Sausage, 4429 N. Broadway. The next an unhappy man, whose name I didn’t catch, asked me darkly if I knew what my hell was.
What the hell?
After a brief, unhelpful dialogue, he suggested I move from the premises lest I wanted a cap in my ass.
Just to be sure I got his message, he raised his hand to pantomime an action that could result in, to twist a classic Sonny Boy Williamson (II) phrase, my funeral and his trial.
Like the sniveling, yellow-to-the-bone pussy that I am, I got moving.
I am sure some of you will nod your heads knowingly and figure that I had this coming, that I must’ve done something provocative enough to justify this fellow’s pique and leave him no choice but to raise the disagreeable specter of cold steel, hot lead and messy belly wounds.
The truth is more innocent than that. It’s not like I strolled into a bar and carelessly rolled dice on Stagger Lee’s Stetson hat.
When I showed up at the Last Bastion of Maxwell Street Blues around 1 p.m., it looked as if the only way I might incite violence would be to tell the guitarist, Tony Perales of “Motavation,” to tone down his infernal caterwauling so I might enjoy a little peace of mind.
Besides the three members of the band, the only folk in the cozy joint were the guy behind the sausage counter and me.
At 1:22, a wiry black dude wearing brown jeans, black, V-neck T-shirt and a drunken gangsta lean came reeling through the open door, a plastic pint bottle protruding from his right rear pocket.* He found his path to the bathroom impeded by a drum set, a drummer, a guitarist and a microphone, so he plopped into the next booth, where he messily rolled strands of menthol tobacco into a cigarette.
*In the parlance of the blues, I believe this is referred to as “a ass pocket of whiskey.” As in, “I got a ass pocket of whiskey, a front pocket of gin; if you don’t open the door I’m gonna kick that motherfucker in.” To wit:
Maxwell Street Uptown Polish Sausage is nothing if not intimate. It is longer than
it is wide, yet it is only long enough to fit five modest booths along the wall opposite the counter. The bass player was tucked in behind the last booth, to the drummer’s left. Since the city and the University of Illinois-Chicago bulldozed the bandstands and finally finished off the blues enthusiasts fighting a rearguard action to preserve something of the fabled Maxwell Street open market, this Saturday afternoon frolic is all that remains of the fading Maxwell Street flavor.
Speaking of the old Maxwell flavor, please check out the video below.
It’s a wonderfully misogynistic blues from the incomparable Robert Nighthawk (John Lee Granderson is on rhythm guitar). I’ve heard the song a hundred times, but I’ve never seen the footage, which comes from Mike Shea’s Maxwell Street documentary “And This is Free.” God damn. It is, as the kids used to say, off the hook:
But, back to our story. With the band shoehorned into the rear quadrant, the
joint does ooze an unadorned, dirty slice of blues. Tony, the Hispanic guitarslinger fronting “Motavation,” is still developing a stage presence, not to mention a singing voice. “Alright, alright, alright,” he invariably intones after seeing a song through to completion. He occasionally mixed in a “thank you, thank you, thank you,” as he did after a blistering version of the Freddy King classic “Hideaway” brought some applause, mainly from me.
An older black gent who had come in and ordered a Polish sausage ($3.30, with fries) and fell stoop-shouldered into a chair in the middle of the room failed to clap, and I wondered neurotically if he knows something, feels a greater intimacy with the groove, that I lack.
No, he is only sleeping. He has to been roused by gentle yelling from the proprietor to come to and get his food. Soon, he’ll bother the band several times to see if they can rustle up a version of “Jailhouse Rock,” but they don’t know it, and they will not learn it by 3 o’clock.
Tony, whose long black mane is bundled in a pony tail and whose eyes are masked by sunglasses, mentions several times that he wants to dedicate the set to Maxwell Street veteran Jimmie Lee Robinson, who died last week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He had battled cancer, and his suicide produced a lengthy feature in Tuesday’s New York Times.
I get up to order some French fries and coleslaw, to get into the flavor of things, so to speak. My friend with the ass pocket of whiskey, a bearded and apparently friendly guy, says, “I know you’re writing a book. You’re the guy writing a book on jazz.”
I was sure he had simply mistaken me for someone with a serious purpose, as I’m sure that an army of reporters, anthropologists, musicologists and folklorists have traipsed through this narrow hole in the wall in search of the missing blues link.
I told him no, I’m not writing a book on jazz.
After the first set, he spied me talking to Tony and taking notes, and said, still smiling, “You lied to me.” This misunderstanding is the only source, not counting the booze, that I can find for his anger. But that was yet to come.
Sitting in the booth in front of me now is a optimistic-looking lad who already has a handsome face of smooth ebony. He comes and goes, occasionally moving to the strong backbeat. The little room is throbbing, and I think I can feel the wax logjam in my ears breaking up. Where will this world take him, I think?
It is impossible not wonder, even if that wonder includes obvious foreboding.
For though this slice of Maxwell Street is hunkered down on the north side of town, here on Broadway, the roughneck, bibulous inhibition of the old South Side seems to suffuse it. Black men sit in an ill-formed circle on the sidewalk, drinking from plastic bottles and growing increasingly belligerent.
Now the young man in question is joined by two older women, possibly his mother and grandmother, maybe even grandmother and great-grandmother. The elder of the ladies is starting to shake with the groove. The fact that nobody in the band can sing and that the music is more mixed-up than mixed just seems to amplify the old-style, greasy charm of the place.
Lew the drummer takes his turn on vocals on “Little Sister,” the band’s nod at satisfying the repeated requests for “Jailhouse Rock.” The walls are covered with photographic memorabilia from the Maxwell Street market, including a shot of Frank “Little Sonny” Scott Jr., the self-styled impresario of Maxwell Street blues, aka “The Supreme Mayor of Maxwell Street.”
Little Sonny is listed as the featured performer in the calendar listings of both the Chicago Reader and Tribune, but he apparently plays little these days. He came in for one song, took out his homespun “house keys” – a percussive metaphor for his slapdash persona. The house keys are crudely crafted of a half-tambourine connected to a strap affixed with jingle bells and what appears to be a chain-link dog leash and festooned all over with more keys than 10 janitors could carry. And he shakes that thing, boy.
An older, rough-looking Latina comes in howling for the band with great gusto.
“You guys remind me of Triumph – a three-man band,” she says with approval. She generously hands out Marlboro (red box) cigarettes to the two black women. Now everybody is smoking except me and the kid.
Apparently Frank “Little Sonny” Scott doesn’t play much anymore. Scott, about 75, comes in during one song. He is a walking billboard in his own right. He’s wearing a red-and-white-striped blue hat, American flag T-shirt and much, much, much more. He grabs his individualized percussion instrument and shakes that thing. It is a half-tambourine, connected to a strap with jingle bells and affiixed all over with more keys than 10 janitors could carry and what appears to be a chain dog leash.
Alright, alright, alright. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
A note on this Starbucks, through the ink-blood spilling from this pen. Fuck, it is a neighborhood melting pot. Though I hear melting pot is an out-of-favor metaphor these days. (I prefer the definition put forth by Geno Stevens, an eccentric high school football booster and shoe-repair shop owner in Windber, Pa.: “America is strong, like a mixed drink.”)
It is an air-conditioned, comfort-driven house of Babel. There is no real melting or melding of cultures, but the linguistic versatility of the city is on continuous display. Right now, two women and a girl are speaking in some eastern European tongue, probably Russian, maybe Ukrainian or Polish. They wear matching leather sandals with three-inch block heels, now lined up causally on foot rests. Likely they are complaining about their men, who surely are faithless, lazy and unaccommodating.
So, next? The set is over, despite the enthused protestations of the hard-edged Latina. I struck up a conversation with Tony. He’s a genial fellow, and happy to engage. So we sit at the booth and I break out my notebook. He says Motavation were the last house band at Frank Little Sonny Scott Jr’s Jukehouse Stage.
Tony is a truck driver by day and a part-time rock and roller. He wears sunglasses on stage, his says, to shut out distractions. As for playing before an empty house, as he was when I first walked through the door, he was pragmatic.
“I look at it like this: It’s a paid practice,” he said. “We just play for the love of playing. We like to play anywhere we can. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1, 2 or 500 people. I love playing.”
He said he’s been playing for 22 years, and that he’s “still trying to get a grip on it.” But he has the heart of a blues player.
“If it moves you, that’s what music’s about,” he said. “Whether it’s jazz, country, rock … I don’t like the critics point of view. The difference between the real blues … is the feel. A lot of people have lot of technique and a lot of flash, but if you don’t have the passion, you ain’t gonna move people. … Like a Flamenco player. If he don’t have the feel, all those millions of notes coming through ain’t going to move people.”
Tony hauls concrete and gravel. He says his hero is Jimi Hendrix. His dad, also Tony, worked in a factory and introduced little Tony to all kinds of music.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have known who Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis and Coltrane were,” he says.
It was about that point that I bid a fond adieu to Tony Perales, gathered up my shit and headed out the door, intent on crossing Broadway to where Little Sonny was holed up in the for corner of the Aldi lot. Little Sonny likes to park and hold court next to his eccentric ride, a 1987 Chevy Caprice tricked out in the most outlandish kitsch.
But I had a trifling bit of business to see to first. I wanted to interview the man who accused me of planning to write a book and who now thought me a liar. At the very least, I wanted to clarify my vague purpose make sure he knew I wasn’t fucking with him.
When I hit the sidewalk, he was arguing with another guy in vehement tones. I should’ve known to stay the hell away.
I didn’t. Instead I approached him. He had none of it. He thought one of the bikes chained to the nearby tree was mine, and indicated I best be pedaling on down the road.
“My man, do you know what your hell is?” he growled.
I was lucky, I thought, to understand his drunken patois. My response, delivered with growing trepidation, was something like, “Are you going to tell me what my hell is?”
And that’s when he offered his prescription for my continued health: “You best get moving, ‘fore you get shot,” he said. “All I have to do is raise my hand.”
I began, involuntarily, to move across Broadway.
“Now you’re goin’ in the right direction,” he said.
I couldn’t help but agree.