(An homage to the St. Louis poet who became a Brit and also to Lou Rawls)
January is the cruelest month.
Where did T.S. Eliot get that April business?
January is the cruelest month, breeding
Black ice boulders out of the dead streets, mixing
Memory and desire, the memory of light,
The longing for sun, at least more of it every day.
January is the cruelest month, building
Slippy slides on the sidewalks, lurking
In wait for me to land flat
On my butt, if I’m lucky.
January is cruel, refusing
To share its light with those who wake in the dark
And work through the rare hours of sunshine.
Assuming there is any anyway.
Sometimes winter keeps us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life for spring.
What branches grow
Out of this icy rubbish? We do know
There is life to come under this ugly blackness.
I will show you how winter can be beautiful
If only the ice would melt
And we could walk happily again
On dry sidewalks, even if the temp is single digits
With a wind chill below zero.
While the Hawk blows off the lake, sending
Me on to a dead end street
Where there is nothing to stop the wind.
So they put ropes on some of the buildings to help
Us get around the corners.
January is still the cruelest month.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold because she didn’t get a flu shot
Despite being the wisest woman in the Midwest.
Here, said she, is your card. The frozen Phoenician sailor
Who should have known better than to go out without
Boots, hat, earmuffs, mittens and down.
Those are shells that were his ears. Look!
Now frozen to pink marble.
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
I could have told her not to swim off the rocks
At Addison, when chunks of ice cover
What was once and will be again
Our beautiful blue lake.
January is the cruelest month, even if, as I,
You love winter.
Just not quite as much of it.
T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land And Other Poems, (1930, Harcourt Brace and Company, Inc.)
Lou Rawls, “Dead End Street Monolog” from Lou Rawls at the Century Plaza (Live) (1973)
And Mr. Justice (I think), my senior year English professor at the University of Missouri, who taught me to love modern poetry and especially, T.S. Eliot.
My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it’s imperfect and isn’t on most best-of lists.
California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol (best known for music video and commercial production), is an homage to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories told by writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and the genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows his collection of 250 typewriters and tells us why he’ll ignore any email thank-you notes.
The five-member Boston Typewriter Orchestra plays concerts. One typewriter has “this machine kills fascists” lettered on its back, an homage to Woody Guthrie. (See a track from one of their concerts below.) They adapt Gil Scott-Heron’s This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into “This Revolution Will Be Typewritten.” They also play a cover of “Rain and Blood” by Slayer, a bit of literally heavy metal music.
Silvi Alcivar writes poetry for hire. She sits in public places, where people tell her their stories. She turns their stories into poems, which she types on her portable typewriter and presents to her customers. Sort of like the letter-writers who used to sit in public places and write letters for illiterate people. (See the 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station.)
My favorite character, whose life we follow throughout the film, is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who creates sculptures from typewriter parts. Originally from the Minnesota Iron Range, he now lives in Oakland. He and the repair shop owner mosey around street markets and fairs, looking for old typewriters that can be salvaged and sold or that are irreparable and can be deconstructed for parts. Mayer makes abstract and figurative sculptures, using only typewriter parts and bolting them together using the original screws and bolts. No soldering. He talks about the visual influence of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis.
At first he struggles to sell anything and to make much income from his sales. By the end of the film, he’s installing a major piece in the city apartment of a wealthy tech executive, and his work is being written about in Wired, Gizmodo and tech blogs. By the end of the film, he’s in India working on a huge sculpture to commemorate the closing of the last typewriter factory in Mumbai.
California Typewriter is simply a story of people whose lives are connected by their love for typewriters. John Mayer is inspired to write his lyrics on a typewriter after seeing Bob Dylan typing lyrics in Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.
David McCullough laments the loss of the typewriter’s analog process, which enabled us to see how important documents are created with redrafts, crossouts and handwritten corrections on different versions. That process was preserved as part of history, where a researcher could see the steps in drafting presidential speeches and policies.
We also learn about the history of the typewriter from a collector of antique models. The first working typewriter was developed by Christopher Lathem Sholes in 1869 in Milwaukee. Sholes and Gliddens typewriters, the first commercially successful models, did not work like later models with keys striking a roller, but even the very first one had a QWERTY keyboard, invented by Sholes.
We can equate today’s interest in typewriters to the passion for music on vinyl or the love for vintage cameras, with their darkroom and photo print features. Sometimes it seems as if the digital world gobbles up everything in its path too quickly. (I’m thinking of the worlds of newspapers and books too.)
But the love for the analog meets digital demand at some point, because a business needs it to survive today. By the end of the film, California Typewriter has a new website to promote its repair work and typewriter sales.
I recommend California Typewriter whether or not the manual typewriter was once part of your life. It’s a charming film, a romance with our mechanical past. I did write on typewriters, first manual, then electric, for decades. But when I first began writing executive speeches, with their interminable versions, on a Wang word processor and then on a Macintosh, there was no turning back. I was happy to give up the scissors and tape by which we reconstructed drafts, in favor of producing a clean version on a computer screen. My analog rhapsody crashed and burned when I turned on my first Mac.
A side note on the value of typewriters. Early in the film, we watch an auction house sell Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter—an Olivetti on which he wrote most of his novels—for $254,000.
I feel guilty about neglecting this personal blog, but as I’ve said before, I’m doing all my writing over at Third Coast Review, mostly on the Stages page, but also in Lit (new review of a Chicago novel about the early days of Chicago electric blues) and Art (a couple of posts like this one on the Century of Progress homes on the beach in Indiana).
The article below is a recap of my visit to New York last week—mainly for a theater critics conference. The schedule provided plenty of time for great theater, and I took advantage of that by seeing four interesting off-Broadway productions. But no Broadway musicals. If you’re interested in Dear Evan Hanson or Come From Away, you’ll have to go elsewhere. But I did have one Broadway regret.
That was the show I didn’t see. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan—I’ve seen him in concert dozens of times, but I thought the tickets to his Springsteen on Broadway show were too expensive. I was able to buy tickets for those off-Broadway plays and pay for dinner too for the price of one Springsteen ticket. (The Walter Kerr Theetre where Springsteen is performing was right around the corner from my hotel.)
Here’s a recap of my theater week, highlighted by two excellent dramas at Lincoln Center, a madcap take on Shakespeare, and a thoughtful new play about mother-son relations. And I even squeezed in a delightful children’s theater production.
After the Blast by Zoe Kazan at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center
After the Blast, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is a dystopian tale of a world after environmental catastrophe. Everything is frozen. It’s nuclear winter. The characters are mostly scientists, who talk matter of factly about when they will get to go “upstairs”—that is, above ground, again. (The answer is not very damn soon.) Their work is finding ways to sustain humanity below ground as well as to prepare for “rehabitation” of the earth at some distant future time. (One of the scientists admits that they let it leak that rehabitation might be sooner to give people some hope.)
Oliver (William Jackson Harper) and Anna (Cristin Milioti) are settled in below ground. Their contemporary home is Ikea-store simple and well-designed, but their only connection to nature is through images on a projection screen that becomes a “window” in their apartment. People use substances like marijuana to help them cope. They also can “sim”—simulate experiences above ground. If you want to visit the mountains or seashore or see penguins in a zoo, you can “sim” it.
Their friends Carrie (Eboni Booth) and Sam (Davis Pegram) are having a baby and Oliver and Anna yearn to have a child too. Propagation is tightly controlled and Anna is preparing to apply for her fertility treatment, but she has been rejected before, partly because of her depressed state of mind.
Oliver brings home a helper robot to help her prepare for her next fertility interview. Anna’s role is to train the robot in movement and speech, so that the robot can be assigned later to a disabled person who needs support. At first Anna rejects the robot, but gradually she gives in and begins to work with it. The robot responds, becomes Arthur, and Arthur and Anna develop a strong, affectionate relationship. Milioti’s performance as friend and mentor to Arthur is sweet and believable. (Arthur and Oliver even have a conversation about Anna.) Anna passes her next interview and Oliver and Anna may be on the road to becoming parents.Or not. (I pondered whether there is some parallel between training a robot and raising a child.)
After the Blast is s warm, humane story that is terrifying in its implications. The nuanced direction and performances are excellent. It continues at the Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center’s “greenhouse”) through November 19.
Measure for Measure by Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater
Perhaps you’ve seen Elevator Repair Service in Chicago. They performed their six-hour masterpiece reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—in a play titled Gatz—in 2006 at the MCA theater. More recently, they brought their dramedy of a Supreme Court case titled Arguendo to the MCA theater in 2014.
Measure for Measure is less successful than the other two ERS plays, but it is refreshing in its approach to the Shakespearean canon. The play is done in modern dress, set at some indeterminate modern time and performed on a set furnished with several rectangular office tables and a dozen chairs—plus six or eight early 1900s-era “candlestick” telephones. The action proceeds at breakneck speed, with actors often speaking so fast you can’t understand them. But most often, the text itself is rolling up the wall and across the ceiling of the set. (It’s performed in the Public’s third-floor LuEsther Theater and runs through November 12.)
Scott Shepherd, who played the lead in Gatz, is cast as the Duke (and masquerades as a friar). The bad guy, Angelo, who takes over the kingdom when the Duke departs, is wickedly played by Pete Simpson. Claudio (Greig Sargeant) is wrongfully imprisoned and his sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) pleads with Angelo for his release. She becomes entangled in two different tricks that are part of the play’s intricate plot. The “bed trick,” wherein Angelo is fooled into thinking he has slept with Isabella, and the “head trick,” wherein the head of the wrong prisoner is brought to Angelo as proof of execution. Various actors portray jailers, executioners and other functionaries in madcap fashion and sometimes silly costumes.
Measure for Measure (or M4M) is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays and it isn’t often performed. My brief description of the plot indicates why. I’ve read MFM and I have seen it at least once. I think that going to see M4M without any knowledge of the play might make it hard to follow. But I applaud ERS and the Public Theater for commissioning the play. And I definitely look forward to the next production by Elevator Repair Service.
Junk by Ayad Akhtar at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
Junk is Akhtar’s latest play, which opened last week at Lincoln Center. I saw the play in its last preview performance. It is spectacularly staged and performed, on a set divided into six to eight honey-combed cells on two levels. The scenes are short and the dialogue is smart and snappy. I’m sure we’ll see it in Chicago soon. One of Akhtar’s plays, The Invisible Hand, is currently running in an outstanding production at Steep Theatre. Goodman Theatre presented Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced in 2015.
Junk refers to the 1980s high-yielding junk bonds used in the practice of corporate raiders taking over companies, often by using the company’s own assets to do so, then stripping the company of its remaining financial, real estate and equipment assets, and firing employees to make the company more profitable—and sometimes to just plain kill it. The plot and characters closely resemble the Michael Milken/Ivan Boesky scandal, although of course, the playbill specifies that the play is a fictionalized account and the characters are “stitched together and never anything other than fiction.”
The Milken-type character is Robert Merkin, played a little too blandly by Steven Pasquale. The large cast is made up of an array of investors, lawyers, an ambitious journalist, a Guiliani-type prosecutor who runs for mayor, and the doomed president of an old manufacturing company targeted by Merkin. The Boesky-type investor character is believably fleshed out by Joey Slotnick, a Chicago actor and member of the Lookingglass ensemble.
The story may remind you of a Chicago production of Other People’s Money, staged by Shattered Globe in 2013. Instead of Robert Merkin, we had Larry the Liquidator, played here by Ben Werling and in the 1991 film by Danny DeVito. The plot is similar but Junk is much more sophisticated, both in staging and script.
The Junk production was first staged in Los Angeles and the New York set is identical to the LA version. Director Doug Hughes and scenic designer John Lee Beatty moved the LA production to New York. My question: will a certain Chicago theater pick up the production and move it unchanged to a Chicago stage? That has happened recently with a couple of successful New York productions. Junk is scheduled to run at the Beaumont until January 7. I’d bet we’ll see it here in the 2018-19 theater season.
The Treasurer by Max Posner at Playwrights Horizon
David Cromer directs this rather low-key story about a middle-aged man, The Son (Peter Friedman) and his widowed mother Ida (the great Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan), who has spent all her funds and is inching toward dementia. The Treasurer is so designated by his two brothers, who ask him to watch out for their mother’s finances, while they fund her move to a luxury retirement center, rather than a more modest home in keeping with her financial status. “But I’m a Beaverbrook person,” she says. “That’s where all my friends are.”
The story is carried out mostly by telephone conversation. Son with brothers, son with mother. We see Ida reaching out for human contact in scenes with retail store clerks as she tries to buy purple pants, new pillows ($700 each or two for $1200) and a new smartphone.
Posner uses a narrative technique where the character narrates what he is doing to us, the audience, without physically doing it. The play opens with a monologue by The Son (the Treasurer) who tells us he is riding his bike and knows that he will go to hell. That prediction ties in to the ending of the play, but I didn’t think the ending fit with the whole tenor of the play.
The set is designed with angled walls, so often a character is unseen (in another room or space), represented by a disembodied voice. I like the way scene changes are handled in this 90-minute play. Crew members simply walk on stage with a new prop or piece of furniture. While other action is proceeding, they get ready for the next scene. It’s naturalistic and practical and fits with the style of the play. The Treasurer closed November 5.
My Perfect Pet by Jeff Eisenberg at the Playroom Theater
This original play is about a young girl who hopes to get a puppy for her 10th birthday. It takes a while for her to prove to her parents that she really is ready for a puppy but when the puppy does arrives, it’s a perfect surprise. Two college students portray the two sisters and a new graduate portrays their friend Josh (and the puppy). The parents are portrayed by two talented actors.
My Perfect Pet is perfectly adorable and runs just over an hour. The many small children in the audience (recommended for ages 4 to 9) were delighted too and bounced around in their seats to the tuneful music. My Perfect Pet runs on Saturdays through November 18.
Who said theater was dead in the summer? Chicago’s theaters, storefront, midsize and large, have active summer seasons. These are some of the plays I’ve seen and reviewed in the last few weeks. They’re all still running, so you have time to see something wonderful.
Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre
Taylor Mac’s script for Hir (pronounced “here”) is brilliant, wordy and fast-moving. It’s a startling play, as I said in my headline, because the publicity makes you think it’s all about sexuality and gender identity. But it’s about much more than that. Terrific acting and a set that will make you happy to go home to your relatively neat living room. Director Hallie Gordon has some of Chicago’s finest actors to work with and she takes full advantage of their talent in the pacing and mood of this play. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours.
Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum
Megastasis‘ title is odd and never really explained well in the script, but ignore that, because this play is terrific, terrifying and informative. Yes, really informative. The playwright takes the time to have characters explain what’s happening to young black men because of mandatory minimum sentencing, changes in drug laws, asset forfeiture, and parole restrictions. The story is about Tray, a young man trying hard to make a life for himself and his baby daughter, while living with his grandfather. A couple of small mistakes (like buying a few joints) get him in trouble that results in a long prison term. It’s a wonderful and disturbing human story. My review. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours, one intermission.
Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre
Lela is a woman disrupted and betrayed by the men in her life. It’s an unsettling and searing performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, in a play that the playwright calls a monologue. But the men keep appearing to interrupt her and change the course of her difficult life in an eastern European war zone. Read my review and see this show before it closes on 8/19; running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.
At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre
My review of At the Table mentions that it might remind you superficially of The Big Chill, but the conversation goes much deeper than that 1983 film. Act one is chatty, sometimes contentious, as we get acquainted with the diverse group of friends. Then, “scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.” You can see At the Table–and you should see it–through 8/26. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.
How to Be a Rock Critic (From the Writings of Lester Bangs) at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre
This is a terrific one-man show where Erik Jensen takes on the persona of iconic rock music critic Lester Bangs and invites us into his messy, drug- and cough-syrup ridden musical nightmare life. I reviewed this with one of my colleagues and we had fun with it. Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, are co-playwrights in this adaptation; she’s the director. They are a formidable pair. Runs only through Saturday 7/29; running time 90 minutes.
There’s a lot of silly burlesque comedy plus bubbly dancing girls in The Nance, but there’s substance too, as my review notes. The story is about a middle-aged gay man who performs “the nance act” at a 1930s New York burlesque theater at a time when the same activity in real life would put him in jail for illegal homosexual activity. It’s a time of change in burlesque theater and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to tell us about the actions of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his licensing commissioner–and the response of the theater community. Runs through August 13; running time 2.5 hours.
We Chicagoans may think we own most of the work of genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed homes that populate the Chicago area, focusing on a concentration of houses in Oak Park and River Forest. But of course Wright designed homes and public structures all over the country.
Some of my dearest friends are former docents for the Chicago Architecture foundation. We all went through the CAF’s rigorous docent training together, studied and cooked together, and have gone on architectural adventures to many locations to see famous buildings, with an emphasis on Frank Lloyd Wright. Besides the Oak Park and River Forest locations, we’ve been to Hyde Park and Beverly to see the Robie House and other Wright homes. We’ve flown to Pittsburgh to see the magnificent Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. We’ve driven to Columbus, Ind., to see the superb collection of buildings by famous architects in that small gem of a city. We’ve been to Racine, Wis., several times to see Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters and the house named Wingspread. We’ve been to Springfield to see the Dana-Thomas house and visited Wright’s Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia..
We took another Wright adventure recently: a 2-plus hour drive to West Lafayette, Ind., to see a small, perfectly finished and preserved Wright home that was lived in by its original owner for almost 60 years, until his recent death. Samara house was named by Wright when he was working with his owner/clients, John and Catherine Christian.
Samara is one of Wright’s Usonian houses, affordable homes for middle-income families. There are about 60 of these houses in the U.S. and they are smaller and less grand than some of the famous Wright Prairie-style mansions like the Robie house or the Avery Coonley house in Riverside. But they are no less uniquely Wrightian and feature the architect’s special touches in design and functionality.
The Christian house is about 2200 square feet and sits on an acre of beautifully landscaped property in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Christians worked very closely with Wright in designing and furnishing the house and they and their heirs have been meticulous in maintaining Wright purity in design and furnishings. The house is furnished with mostly Wright designed furniture, built by local artisans.
Samara means “winged seed,” and Wright used that motif throughout the house in structure, furnishings and ornament.
Our tour group met in the lounge or living area of the house for a briefing and discussion by associate curator Linda Eales, a knowledgeable and engaging tour leader. She began by asking the 25-plus visitors where we were from and how many Wright houses we had visited. It turned out that we were with a group of Wright aficionados, many of whom had traveled great distances to see Samara.
Eales described the long process that the Christians went through with Wright to build the house within their small budget. The process went on for more than five years and the house was finished in 1956. Some of the rooms were closed during our visit; the rooms we viewed were the large lounge or living room, dining area, kitchen and guest room, as well as the arboretum.
The Christians occupied the house until 2015, when Mr. Christian died. His wife preceded him in death. Samara is a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of Samara house are available by reservation April 1 through late November. The tours last about two hours and cost $10. The house is located at 1301 W. Woodland Ave., West Lafayette, a few miles from U.S. 65. To make a tour reservation, call 765-409-5522 or email info AT samara-house DOT org.
Slideshow photos by Nancy Bishop. This article previously appeared on Third Coast Review.
I had the pleasure of seeing a fine concert at the Symphony Center last Friday and it took me back to my time working at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville in the 1980s–one of my favorite jobs ever. My main job was handling press relations for the company. Distributing press releases, arranging interviews and handling the many queries that came in from reporters all over the world about our products and stores. But my very favorite part of the job–and probably the most fun I ever had working–was the annual KFC Bluegrass Music Festival.
The first time I wrote about that here was in an essay titled “The Day I Discovered Bluegrass.” I wrote then: “I worked at KFC less than two years but returned to work at the bluegrass festival for several years thereafter. (Unfortunately, the festival didn’t survive the merger of KFC’s parent company with another giant corporation.) The festival was a highlight of my year – spending several days on the riverfront hanging out with music press and musicians, talking to festival attendees, and listening to music, music, music.”
Abigail’s clog dancing reminded me of the many clog dancers who performed at the festivals–earnest young people dressed in their Sunday best and wearing clunky clogging shoes. And I remembered the night that heavy rain shut down the festival and we spent the evening inside the adjacent hotel, drinking beer, listening to music and, yes, clog dancing, or just dancing. Friday night at the Symphony Center brought it all back.
My review of the Friday concert ran today in Third Coast Review. Here it is.
The Symphony Center is a different place when the program veers away from classical. Few suits and ties, no designer dresses or jewelry. Plenty of jeans and khakis, checks and plaids, t-shirts with lettering, a bolo tie or two, boots and hoodies. It’s a different audience vibe when the music is bluegrass. And so it was last Friday when Bela Fleck, the banjo virtuoso, and his multitalented wife, Abigail Washburn (vocals and clawhammer banjo) took the stage for a one-hour set.
They were followed by the Del McCoury band, a traditional bluegrass band made up of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. And all five musicians did wear suits and ties, as traditional bluegrass players do.
When Bela and Abbie came on the CSO stage, they looked around at the beautiful auditorium and Bela said, admiringly, “Looks like this place needs some banjo playing.” And so they did.
Bela Fleck is gray-haired now and a little heavier than when I met him 30-odd years ago at a KFC Bluegrass Music festival in Louisville. He was playing then with a progressive bluegrass band called New Grass Revival, featuring mandolin player Sam Bush. I was doing press relations for KFC corporate, and so I got the bluegrass festival assignment. Three full September days of bluegrass, morning to night, on the riverfront plaza. I worked for KFC for less than two years, but went back several years after that to work at the festival.
Fleck and Washburn released an eponymously titled debut album, which won a 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and they’re working on a new album. Fleck is a superbly talented banjo player, focused totally on his instrument. Washburn’s effervescent personality, sassy commentary and song stylings bring energy and charm to their duo act.
Many of the songs they played were their own compositions, but they opened with a traditional folk song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” with a vocal by Abigail. They performed a song in Chinese, built on Abigail’s many tours to China and her fluency in Mandarin.
Another number performed with great feeling was “Come All Ye Coal Miners,” an eastern Kentucky labor protest song by Sarah Ogan Gunning, from a coal mining family. They also played a Carter Family song, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Their most powerful performance was on “Harland, Kentucky,” a song they composed together. Abigail, whose vocals started out sweetly and became more robust as the set progressed, announced that she was going to do something during this song that she had never done before. And she accompanied the powerful lyrics with an excellent display of Appalachian clog dancing, her heels providing percussion and punctuation for the lyrics and Bela’s picking.
The pair switched instruments frequently, with Bela occasionally playing a small ukulele banjo as well as a baritone banjo.
At one point, the pair described and demonstrated the differences in their playing styles. Abigail plays clawhammer banjo, sometimes called frailing, a rhythmic strumming style of playing. The banjo and that style of playing were brought from West Africa by the blacks who became slaves in the south.
Bela plays bluegrass banjo, notable for its fast three-finger picking, made famous by Earl Scruggs.
The clawhammer banjo has an open back, while the bluegrass banjo has a resonator back to enhance its sound. But the main difference between the two styles is picking vs strumming.
The Del McCoury Band came on for the second set, led by the bluegrass veteran Del McCoury on guitar and lead vocals. His two sons, Ronnie and Rob, play mandolin and banjo. Jason Carter plays a fabulous fiddle and Alan Bartram is on upright bass. The band performs close harmony on traditional bluegrass songs such as “Kentucky Waltz” and more contemporary tracks such as “Nashville Cats” by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Del McCoury Band has been playing more or less in its current form since 1992. They have won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award nine times. They record now on their own label—McCoury Music.
The first time I heard of Brian Doyle or his book, Chicago: A Novel, was when I read a review on my own website, Third Coast Review. I have read a lot of Chicago history and lore, and my first thought was, how did I not know about this book? I bought a copy right away.
I fell in love with the book from the first page.
“On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, because Lake Michigan is no lake at all, but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers … appealed to me greatly.”
wasI’ve been reading the book in small sips, before I go to sleep at night. The reason is, it’s only 300 pages and I don’t want it to be over. When I started writing this essay, I had only 20 pages left to read and I was sad.
Chicago: A Novel is really more the memoir of an unnamed protagonist’s year-plus spent living and working in Chicago in about 1979-80. (It’s Doyle’s history and his story.) For the most part it’s a realistic story of the characters (especially the residents in his apartment building and the dudes from the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles he plays basketball with on a nearby school playground) and places, such as Comiskey Park (he and his neighbors were Sox fans despite living a few blocks from Wrigley), blues and jazz clubs and places to buy empanadas and gyros. Near the end, there’s the story of John the Mailman, a student of dragonflies.
It’s the story of a guy just out of college with his first real job, working for a Catholic magazine at a Loop office. We travel with him on his bus rides to work on the Sound Asleep Bus and on his long walks exploring the city or dribbling his shiny old basketball along the lakefront. What keeps it from being a real memoir and makes it novelistic is the addition of bits of magical realism. The most important is Edward, an amazing dog of an indeterminate breed, who collects stamps and speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s the detective who—when the opening day trip to Comiskey has to be canceled because of an illness—tells the entire game, play by play, picking up the action from some radio waves in the air unheard by anyone else.
Doyle’s book is well written and full of Chicagoness. He places major and minor places in their exact places on the city map like the way “Broadway bends between Roscoe and Aldine streets” and a wonderful gyro shop over on Washtenaw. It’s hard to believe it was written by a guy who lived here less than two years.
When I was about midway through the book, I learned that Doyle, who now lives in Portland and is editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland and a widely published author, is now suffering from brain cancer. He had surgery for what he called “a big. honkin’ brain tumor” last November and also has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. There’s a Doyle family GoFundMe page to help with his expenses.
Chicago: A Novel is a love letter to the city I love. I marked so many quotable passages in the book. Here’s one of my favorites.
“Sometimes, even now, years later and far away, on steel-gray days when the wind whips and I am near large waters, I feel a bolt of what I can only call Chicagoness, and I remember, I remember … what? A certain Chicago of the mind, I suppose. And sometimes then I sit by a fire, and I remember aloud…. about the way buildings crowded the streets and the sidewalks were narrow and buckled in the oldest parts of the city, and how stores and shops leaned in eagerly toward the street…. And the swirl of snow along the lake, eddying and whirling and composing drifts deep enough to hide a horse. … And the bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice…. And the smell of sausages and kielbasa and onions and beer at games and carnivals and festivals and street fairs…. Perhaps this is true of every city, but it was certainly true of mine then, that what the world saw … was not at all the real city, and was only the gloss and sheen of a rough grace that was the actual bone and music of the place.”
Susannah Pratt, who wrote the review I mentioned, observes, “Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside.”
I finished the book last night. I didn’t want to finish it because I knew the ending—when the protagonist drove south along the lake, “past the ragged glories of the South Side … over the Calumet River and onto the interstate highway and over the Illinois border into Indiana”—would make me cry. And it did.