The Power of Music: John Hammond, Robert Johnson and Bruce Springsteen

You may never have heard of John Hammond. But if you’re a music fan or a civil rights supporter, you know he’s a major figure of the 20th century. Radiolab, the WNYC program, did a show this week titled “The Power of Music” and almost half of it was devoted to the work of Hammond, the civil rights activist and A&R executive (artists and repertoire or talent scout) for Columbia Records. During the course of his long career, Hammond, who came from a wealthy family (he had a Vanderbilt in his past), discovered and launched the careers of musicians like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. And dozens more.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hammond was instrumental in bringing the music of African-American performers out of the “race music” ghetto they languished in for decades. Early in his career, he organized the first Carnegie Hall concert to feature black musicians—in December 1938. One of the musicians he wanted to feature was Robert Johnson, the legendary backwoods Mississippi blues master. When he learned that Johnson had died recently, he played some of his music by hooking up a turntable to the Carnegie Hall sound system. The Radiolab segment titled “Letting the Devil Tune Your Guitar” explores the legend about Hammond and Robert Johnson and the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a great guitarist. Radiolab comes to the spooky conclusion that there might have been more than one Robert Johnson. It’s a compelling piece of radio.

Robert Johnson died at 27 in about 1938 (or 1939 or 1941). His music inspired musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influencer at its first induction in 1986. He’s often credited as the songwriter of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

440px-Bruce_Springsteen_-_Roskilde_Festival_2012This weekend I watched an old documentary about that New Jersey musician who Hammond signed to Columbia in 1972. Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was made in 1995 when the band got together in a studio in New York to record a Greatest Hits album. Seeing the band 20 years younger was a visual shock. Their current personas are indelibly imprinted on my brain because I saw them so many times during recent tours. Today, yes, they’re older, grayer, balder, but they seem to be more fit and energized. Many of the band members in ’95 look a little pudgy and scruffy. Even Bruce, who today looks trim, even skinny, in tight black jeans, was a bit fleshy. And the beards make a huge difference. At first I didn’t recognize some of the band members under their hirsuteness. Garry Tallent, the bass player, and Roy Bittan, the pianist, looked very different. And so did Bruce.

The reunion was the first time the band had played together in 11 years and you could see how happy and excited they were to be together again. The power of music took them to great heights in recording the 18 songs for the album. The film shows the effort and creativity involved in getting the album made. Producer Chuck Plotkin and manager Jon Landau work closely together. Bruce is rewriting lyrics on a yellow pad and taking votes for the photo on the CD cover. Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg are writing lyrics or notations or arrangements, as they’re getting ready to record.

The songs “Blood Brothers,” “Secret Garden,” “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land” are some of the new tracks on that album. The film shows each of them being worked out with instrumentation changing until Bruce, the perfectionist, is satisfied. The final section shows the music video of “Murder” (directed by Jonathan Demme) being filmed in front of an audience of fans at Tramps in New York.

If you’re interested in learning more about John Hammond, there are several biographies. This book by Dunstan Prial looks like a good choice and I’m going to read it soon. For more info on Robert Johnson, I recommend Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.

It’s Oscar time: Love the art, if not the artist

I’ve seen most of the Academy Award nominee films this year and talked to friends about them often. My friends know I’m a movie geek and that I occasionally write about films so they like to know what I think or tell me why they disagree with my opinions. (I’m not naming my Oscar winners here, but I may let something slip in this essay.)

Most of these films I’ve seen with friends and their reactions are often quite interesting. If they find the major characters unappealing or boring, they decide they don’t like the film, no matter how excellent it is in every way (including the performance of the disliked character). This puzzles me.

Mr. Turner

NSBJ-Mr_Turner_posterFor instance, in the late 2014 film Mr. Turner, JMW Turner is depicted from mid-career on as he becomes recognized for his magical, almost mystical, seascapes and landscapes. He’s not upper class, he’s a man of the middle class at best. His father, a former barber, acts as his assistant in the studio. Timothy Spall portrays Turner as crude and rough, both in speech and actions. He’s unkind to his employees and probably not pleasant company. But his paintings are gorgeous and the Mike Leigh film is insightful and beautifully made. It received outstanding reviews and a Metascore of 94 out of 100 on

The friend I saw the film with hated the Turner character and didn’t care for the film much either.


Boyhood_filmAnother film I loved (and have seen twice) is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. After I first saw it in July, I wrote that it’s “a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential.”

A friend who also saw the movie thought it was boring. She found the boy unappealing and none of the characters interesting.

In the first place, I don’t agree with that view of Boyhood. And I don’t think whether you happen to “like” the characters has anything to do with the nature, quality and excellence of the film.


In Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, JK Simmons plays a jazz band coach, who is blunt, unkind, even physically brutal to the teenaged musicians. A despicable character, surely? But that doesn’t mean the film and Simmons’ performance aren’t Oscar-worthy. (Whiplash received an 88 Metascore.) Take a look at Simmons with the teenaged drummer played by Miles Teller.


NSB-Birdman_posterBirdman was another brilliant film, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Although it’s nominated (and may well win) best film and has received excellent reviews (88 on Metacritic), it seems to really divide viewers. Many people I talked to about Birdman said they hated it and hated Michael Keaton and his character. I just don’t understand what that has to do with your opinion of a film. The premise and plot of Birdman is brilliantly creative, the acting is superb and it’s astute about ego and aging—plus the cinematography is outstanding. (Yes, I would be happy if it wins best film.)

The Third Man. I just watched The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, for the fifth or sixth time. (I’ll write about this gorgeous early noir film in a later post.) Harry Lime (Welles) is a thoroughly despicable character and Holly Martin (Cotton) is an ineffectual American writer in Vienna just after World War II. Neither of them is likable or admirable. But how could that possibly change your view of this epic film?

The art is what it is

I’ve written about this topic before: Love the art even if you don’t love the artist. My point is that the work of art deserves to be viewed on its own, separately from the artist. In April, I wrote about the documentary on photographer Vivian Maier, which depicts her (through interviews) as controlling and mean to the children she cared for. I said that I don’t care about that. I appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity.

And I added a comment about Woody Allen, who some believe is a horrible, perverted, child-abuser. And he may be that. Or not. Either way, that doesn’t affect the nature of his films or whether I want to see them or appreciate them. The art is what it is.

And finally, there’s Bruce

Of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen corollary. (Isn’t there always?) Springsteen does not hide his political views; he’s a committed blue-collar liberal. He expresses his views in his songs (especially in his recent albums, Magic and Wrecking Ball). In every concert he takes a few minutes for what he calls his PSA, where he criticizes the current administration (especially under Bush 43), demands punishment for those who caused the financial crisis and help for those who are in need. This drives his conservative fans crazy. (I know because I’ve gone to plenty of concerts with some of them. And I love them anyway.) But those fans love his music—his stories, his lyrics, his melodies, his performance, his band. They appreciate his art for what it is.

Here’s Bruce singing about “Death to My Hometown,” brought about by the banksters. “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” he sings, to the cheers of this huge crowd at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012.

Celebrating a Springsteen Birthday: How Can This Man Be 65?

Yes, my favorite rocker has turned 65 and his Chicago-area fans celebrated with words and music last weekend at Fitzgerald’s, the blues/jazz/rock club in Berwyn. A soldout crowd of 100 filled the comfy Sidecar music room. Musicians led by guitarist Bucky Halker played solos, duets and other configurations of Springsteen music, including some rarities. But they weren’t playing covers; they were reinterpreting Springsteen’s music in interesting ways. June Sawyers and I contributed “literary” readings about Springsteen.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Other musicians were Don Stiernberg on mandolin, Al Rose on guitar, Andrea Bunch on keyboards and guitar, John Mead on guitar, and John Abbey on upright bass. Rose did a fiery version of “Spirit in the Night” and Halker’s “Racing in the Street” and “State Trooper” were other highlights.

June read historical and profile pieces about the birthday honoree. I read* an excerpt from his SXSW keynote speech and suggested to Bruce “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Retire.” The group played “John Henry” as the closer.

Photos by Kaitlynn Stanger.

 * If you’re interested in receiving my readings, please leave a comment on this site with your email. Let me know which reading you want, and I’ll be happy to send it along.

Birthday tribute setlist:

State Trooper
Ghost of Tom Joad
None But the Brave
This Hard Land
Stolen Car
Growin’ Up
For You
Racing in the Street
Born to Run
Hard Times
Spirit in the Night
She’s the One
Thunder Road
Atlantic City
John Henry

Road trip: Bruce, BBQ and E Street Radio

It’s 470 miles from Chicago to Nashville, down I-65, the spine of Indiana, around Louisville and then on to Nashville. That was our road trip last week to see Bruce Springsteen at the Bridgestone Arena. It was a sold-out show with 18,000 ecstatic fans welcoming Bruce home after his years in the European and Asia Pacific wilderness.

The concert was fabulous—a 3.25 hour E Street Band performance with classics like “I’m on Fire” and “Downbound Train” and beautifully sorrowful songs like “The Wall” from the new High Hopes album. The whole horn section was up front for “Johnny 99.” I thought he was through after rousing encore versions of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and “Shout” and final band thanks. I was hoping for a live version of “Dream Baby Dream,” but he waved away the pump organ and played a solo acoustic “Thunder Road,” letting the crowd lead him in a singalong. A great ending.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can read a report on the concert and see the full setlist on my favorite Springsteen site, Scroll down to the Nashville report.

Update: I have to add this comment by Mosley Turner, who reviewed the April 26 Atlanta concert for Backstreets. “Bruce has received — and earned — virtually every honor and accolade there is, in addition to the unswerving loyalty of the E Street fans. This is a man with not a thing left to prove, yet he delivered a performance tonight as though everything was at stake, fully invested in every lyric and every note. While there will always be those who will say ‘you shoulda been there’ for a particular tour or some special moment, no one who sees Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band right now could come away feeling that they did not see them at a peak in their long and storied career.”

In our 18 hours on the road, food and music were the main topics. We had live downloads of concerts from Cape Town, South Africa, and Hunter Valley, Australia, to listen to, plus E Street Radio on Sirius all the way.

Townhouse Cafe, Seymour, Indiana

Townhouse Cafe, Seymour, Indiana

On the way south, we picked Seymour, Indiana, as our lunch stopping point as a hat-tip to John Mellencamp, who was born there. I remembered breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches from a college year in Iowa; I had recently learned they’re an Indiana favorite too. So we found the Townhouse Cafe in Seymour, a homey place said to serve the best tenderloin sandwich in Indiana. Well, it was delicious and huge and since I don’t engage in food porn, I didn’t take a photo. Our server had worked there for 20 years and I quizzed her about Mellencamp, whose framed album cover of Scarecrow was hanging over the counter. Yes, she remembered one time when he came in alone and she didn’t recognize him at first; he was a gentleman to serve and talk to.

The morning after the concert with both of us sleep-deprived, we headed north and picked up I-65. Wanting to get around Louisville before lunch, I picked New Albany, Indiana, as a lunch stop. (I lived in Louisville in the ‘80s working for KFC so the territory was familiar.)

Feast BBQ, New Albany, Indiana

Feast BBQ, New Albany, Indiana

This time we were yearning for barbecue and found Feast BBQ in New Albany not too far off the highway. We skipped the bourbon and beer, their other specialties, and had amazing brisket sandwiches. Truly, it was the best smoked brisket I’ve ever had and I would go back tonight if it wasn’t a five hour drive. We talked to the owner and he divulged some secrets about how they smoke their meat. Since I’m not planning on smoking meat in my highrise apartment, I didn’t take notes.

Yes, a road trip in a fast car with great music and food stops is a good thing now and then. When I had small children, I dreaded road trips. But they’re an occasional pleasure now. I’m not ready to get back in the car yet, but I’m sure I will be, further on up the road….

Follow this blog

If you’d like to receive an email when I post a new article on, just put in your email address on the upper right side of this page. I promise no spam and you don’t need a password!

The Best Things About 2013

Yes, there were some horrible things about 2013, mostly political, Congressional, in fact. But there were some great things about the year. Here’s are some of the things I want to remember about the last 12 months.


I’ve written about most of these things here, but I decided not to provide links because then the whole post would be links. If you want to follow up on a topic, check the Categories selections on the right. (Image courtesy PSD Graphics.)


  • Retirement means I’m finally able to be a writer. Writing about the things I love. I was a business writer for 35 years, but it was never this much fun.
  • Being “hired” to write for Gapers Block has been terrific. Thank you, Andrew and LaShawn. In just seven months, I’ve posted 71 articles, mostly theater and art reviews. All Gapers Block writers work as volunteers, but I do get free theater tickets and personal previews of art exhibits.
  • Nancy Bishop’s Journal has been in business for 18 months and this year I wrote 65 new posts, as my WordPress Annual Report announced yesterday.

Theater bests

  • An Iliad at Court Theatre was absolutely the best play of my year.
  • The Seafarer at Seanachai Theatre, performed at The Den Theatre, was a close second. It’s been extended, so you can still see it until February 1.
  • Homeland 1972 at Chicago Dramatists. How could I not love a play based on a Bruce Springsteen song? (“Highway Patrolman” from the 1982 album Nebraska.)
  • Terminus performed by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.
  • The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn by Strange Tree Theatre at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The time machine was worth the ticket price but the whole show was smart and funny.
  •  Remy Bumppo seems to do no wrong, at least this year. Both Northanger Abbey and An Inspector Calls were outstanding productions.
  • Hypocrites is another company that does great work. Their production of the Chicago story titled Ivywild was wondrous.
  • Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Balcony was outstanding, and so is most of this group’s work.
  • There were many more excellent shows, many that I reviewed for Gapers Block. But I’ll stop at nine.


  • Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre. Leonard was his usual charming, sprightly self and left me cheering for a performer who knows how to present a great show. Both Leonard and I are approaching the age at which we might be called “super-agers” and I look forward to seeing how both of us do in our 80s.
  • The farewell to Lou Reed, who died in October at 71, was a musical tribute played outside in a grove of trees near Lincoln Center. Watch this video to see friends and fans rocking out to his “Walk on the Wild Side.”

  • The soundtrack from the film Inside Llewyn Davis, taking us back 50 years to relive the ‘60s in Greenwich Village, in the pre-Dylan era. The songs are all new arrangements of traditional folk songs, except for “Please Mr. Kennedy,” done in a hilarious performance by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (providing the bass notes).
  • “Dream Baby Dream,” the Springsteen song I couldn’t stop listening to
  • Anticipation: A new Springsteen record, High Hopes, will be released January 14. We’re hoping that Bruce will finally come home to tour but so far the 2014 dates are only in South Africa and Australia.

Films (a few of my favorites, in random order)  

  • Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’ve seen twice and reviewed here last week.
  • Russian Ark, a 2002 film by Aleksandr Sokurov, a technological and artistic masterpiece, despite being plotless. It’s a tour thru the Hermitage with a cast of thousands.
  • Sound City, a documentary made by Dave Grohl about one of the last analog music production studios in Los Angeles.
  • Anna Karenina, a gorgeous film innovatively staged—literally on a theater stage—with beautiful costumes, settings, cinematography and acting.
  • Holy Motors, a bizarre masterwork directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant.
  • Springsteen and I, in which his fans talk about how they came to be Springsteen fans and what his music means to them.
  • 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about the background singers, mostly black and female, who make rock sound like the music we love.
  • I didn’t see Spike Jonze’s Her until January 3, but it’s one of the top films of 2013. My review is coming up.
  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey, written and produced by Mark Cousins, an Irish film critic. The fascinating 15-part series starts with the first barely moving pictures in the 19th century and ends with today’s filmmakers. TCM ran it on 15 consecutive Monday nights this fall and Netflix is streaming it.
  • As always, a bow to the Gene Siskel Film Center and its dedication to excellent, rarely seen films


  • House of Cards, the Netflix political drama available for binge-watching
  • Treme, a somewhat flawed HBO series, centered on the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood, with great music; it ended this week after four seasons.
  • Breaking Bad on AMC; it’s all over for Walter White. Looking forward to the final season of Mad Men, also to be shown in two parts. Will Don Draper finally become Dick Whitman?
  • Stand Up for Heroes, the annual benefit concert for wounded warriors, on which Mr. Springsteen did a 20-minute set and told bad jokes.
  • Palladia, the 24/7 rock music channel. What would I do without it?

 Art and art venues

  • The Art of Fashion X 3. The most underrated of the three exhibits–Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair—is at the Chicago History Museum until May 11. It’s a fabulous show; don’t miss it. The other two were Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibit.
  • Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin. This exhibit of the Chicago rock and roll photographer’s work for magazines, album covers and posters is excellent. It’s at the Chicago Cultural Center thru January 4, so you still have a minute to see it.
  • Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy, a superb exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on West Grand Avenue. I wrote a feature about this excellent small museum for Gapers Block.
  • The Work at Play exhibit of graphic design at the Chicago Design Museum in the Block 37 building, part of the Pop-Up Art Loop project. The exhibit honored the work of John Massey, a famous Chicago designer, and other important graphic designers

Books and book events

  • I’ve written about short stories, my book group, ebooks on the CTA, and musical author book events: Richard Hell at the BookCellar and Peter Hook at the MCA
  • Emile Zola, whose novels I binged on this year. Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, The Joy of Life and Germinal are just the beginning.
  • The 50th anniversary of the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Miscellaneous but important

  • The death of Roger Ebert left a huge gap in film criticism and the movie biz.
  • Edward Snowden and the NSA. Snowden’s release of NSA files, whether legal or not, made us aware of how much the government is invading our privacy. My view is that Snowden is a patriot and should be given amnesty so he can come home. He should not be imprisoned and tortured as Bradley/Chelsea Manning was for similar acts. Today the New York Times published a powerful editorial agreeing with me.
  • Oscar Libre. After 32 years, it’s time to release Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican independence activist. I wrote about him a few weeks ago.
  • And now, it’s time for ….


Reliving the ‘60s: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis

Yes, I was there in the ‘60s, but not in Greenwich Village where Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan hung out and where the new film Inside Llewyn Davis is set. I spent the ‘60s in northwestern Wisconsin in River Falls, a small college town that I now think of as Brigadoon, a magical place. Well, at least a very good place to live and raise two small boys. We lived in a series of comfy old houses with big back yards on tree-lined streets with names like Cedar, Maple and Main.

We didn’t go to the Gaslight Café to hear up-and-coming musicians. But we did go to a local coffee house to listen to folk music and poetry by students, faculty and occasionally visiting talent. And there was always some kind of musical or theatrical event to attend on campus. Eugene McCarthy campaigned in River Falls in 1968 and we went to the parade on Main Street to cheer him on. What a lovely place to live.

You can’t help but think of life in the ‘60s as you watch Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film that you could only have missed hearing about if you have been in a cocoon for the last month. But for once, the hype is worth it. It’s a smart film, mostly historically accurate, and the music is worth the price of the ticket. Even though I generally prefer music that rocks, these are lyrical, traditional folk ballads (with one exception) arranged for today, with T Bone Burnett as the musical czar and Marcus Mumford (of the eponymous Mumford & Sons) as co-producer. Best of all, you hear full-length songs in the film, not 30-second samples.

The Llewyn Davis character is patterned after a folk singer of the time, Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was one of the Coen brothers’ historical sources. Van Ronk’s second album, Inside Dave Van Ronk, provided the cover art idea for the movie version of the Llewyn Davis album, Inside Llewyn Davis. And the poster for the new film is a dead ringer for the cover of Bob Dylan’s album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (with a cat instead of Suze Rotolo). The similarities are striking in both cases. My friend June Skinner Sawyers writes about the Freewheelin’ photo shoot in her book, Bob Dylan: New York (2011, Roaring Forties Press).

The film shows us the quest of Llewyn Davis (played by the very talented Oscar Isaac), a folksinger who wants to perform authentic folk music, in the era before the genre became commercial. He goes everywhere, with his beatup guitar case, a knapsack, and usually a cat over his arm. The cat, who acts like cats do, is also on a quest—to escape from Llewyn’s grasp and, maybe, to get home. The fact that the cat is named Ulysses, which we don’t find out until the end of the film, adds to its charm. We could analyze Llewyn’s quest as that of a modern-day Ulysses or Odysseus, but we don’t need to do that to enjoy his quest for someone to listen to his music and pay him for performing. He just wants to make his living as a musician.

His journey includes performing at the Gaslight, a “basket club” where performers’ remuneration is in the tip basket; trying to get his manager to sell his solo album; and taking a road trip to Chicago, which is a short film in itself. He finds his way to the Gate of Horn on Dearborn Street to audition for its owner, Bud Grossman (played by Murray Abraham), who is known to be an effective manager of musicians. In an empty club, in sunlight and shadow, Llewyn plays an old folk song, “The Death of Queen Jane” for Grossman. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong song. Grossman says “I don’t see much money in that,” when Llewyn finishes.

The Grossman character, like most of the characters in the film, is patterned after a real person. Albert Grossman, the man who ran the Gate of Horn, managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and created and managed the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. At the end of Llewyn’s audition, Grossman tells him he’s forming a trio of two guys and a girl singer. “If you trim that beard to a goatee and stay out of the sun, we could use you,” Grossman tells Llewyn. Llewyn declines the opportunity.

There are many parallels to the quest of other young musicians to gain an audience. Bruce Springsteen spent years playing in small bands and performing on his own before finally getting to audition for John Hammond, the legendary Columbia record producer and civil rights activist. Bruce’s manager, Mike Appel, pressured Hammond to audition Bruce in May 1972 and the result, after Bruce played for Hammond, was a 10-record contract with Columbia. Bruce was lucky; he had a manager who fought for him (even though he and Appel later split in a contentious contract dispute). If he hadn’t, he might have ended up like Llewyn Davis, wandering the streets of New York with his guitar and playing for tips.

In a 1998 interview with MOJO magazine, Springsteen remembered the session: “It was a big, big day for me… I was 22 and came up on the bus with an acoustic guitar with no case… I was embarrassed carrying it around the city. I walked into his office and had the audition, and I played a couple of songs and [Hammond] said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ – See more here. The audition tracklist and the tapes themselves were part of the Bruce Springsteen exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that ran from April 2009 thru February 2011. (I visited three times.)

At the very end of the film, after Llewyn leaves the stage at the Gaslight, we see the next performer in shadowy profile—a young Bob Dylan; the song playing is Dylan’s unreleased version of “Farewell” aka “Fare Thee Well,” an 18th century English song that’s played several times in the film. Playing over the credits is Dave Van Ronk himself, singing “Green Green Rocky Road,” which Llewyn sings in the film.

The Coen brothers have created a film that immerses you in 1961 Greenwich Village with their obsessive attention to detail. It’s a good film to just enjoy; you’re sure to find some elements that apply to your life, even though you may disagree with others. There have been many reviews of this film and interviews with its star. Plus Showtime is running an excellent concert film (Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside llewyn Davis”) with music and performers from the film plus other related music and performers. My favorites in this splendid cast are the Punch Brothers, fronted by Chris Thile, the mandolinist and composer who won a MacArthur Fellowship (the Genius Grant) last year. I’ve had discussions, arguments even, with friends who want to overanalyze the Llewyn Davis character. Or the cat. Don’t do it. As Steve Prokopy says at the end of his Gapers Block review:

“The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac’s work: he’s been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. Inside Llewyn Davis is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don’t try — just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.

I couldn’t agree more.

The song I can’t stop listening to: “Dream Baby Dream”

Bruce Springsteen has a song oeuvre in the hundreds. The setlists for his legendarily long concerts are 99 percent his music. But he occasionally covers another artist’s work. That’s the case with a beautiful song that I first heard him sing in 2005 and again the other night on the Stand Up for Heroes concert. Since then, I’ve been mesmerized by this song and have listened to it dozens of times. Two video versions below.

SUFHlogoThe Stand Up for Heroes Concert is an annual event co-sponsored by the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the New York Comedy Festival to honor wounded warriors. (Woodruff is an ABC News reporter who was almost killed by an IED in Iraq in 2006.) This year’s, the seventh annual event, was held November 6 at the theater at Madison Square Garden, a 5800-seat venue. Like last year’s event, it was streamed live on YouTube and thus on my big beautiful TV set.  (Some people buy big HD flatscreens to watch football; I bought mine to watch rock concerts.)

I really needed a Bruce Springsteen fix, since it’s been 14 months since I saw him live at Wrigley Field last September. (See Related Links below.) So I was very excited about this concert. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd opened with his band and the Wounded Warriors Project, a band of warriors with instruments, voices, missing limbs, and other wounds we could not see. They played a great set including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”  “Hallelujah” included a beautiful solo by Tim Donley, a veteran with an amazing voice–and no legs.

You can donate to Stand Up for Heroes here, by the way. This year’s concert raised a record $5 million. The Woodruff foundation has raised $20 million to help veterans after they return home.

Bruce came on solo to do an acoustic set. First of all, however, he did his dirty joke routine.  “I don’t understand this. A night of comedy for soldiers…and the entire night went by with no dirty jokes?” Bruce had to tell his bad dirty jokes, one between each pair of songs.

He sang an acoustic version of “Dancing in the Dark,” and then his wife, Patti Scialfa, came out to share the mic on “If I Should Fall Behind.” Finally, he went to the pump organ to sing “Dream Baby Dream,” a really beautiful song that he has rarely performed live.

The first time he played DBD was May 11, 2005, at the first Devils & Dust concert at the  Rosemont Theatre. (What? You don’t think I keep notes of these important historical events?) That theater is a nice venue for a solo performer. (I saw Leonard Cohen there too.) “Dream” was the last song in Bruce’s 24-song set and I had never heard it before. The fans I was with hadn’t either and there was a great buzz on the message boards that night and the next day. Many thought it was the Roy Orbison song, “Dream Baby,” but I knew it wasn’t the same melody.

The next day someone (or many someones) figured out that the song was by the punk band Suicide, which influenced Springsteen’s album Nebraska.  Among other Suicide recordings, “Dream Baby Dream” is on their album called Attempted: Live at Max’s Kansas City 1980. 

You can watch Bruce’s 21-minute SUFH set (including bad jokes) here.

And you can also watch another beautiful version of “Dream Baby Dream” in this 5-minute video that Bruce released at the end of his Wrecking Ball tour to say thanks to his fans. The video, edited by the super-talented Thom Zimny, includes clips of Bruce from various concerts and lots of footage of fans and their reactions. I’m sure I’m in there somewhere.

I’m still looking for an audio-only version of DBD that I can download for my iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. So far I haven’t found any, either free or for purchase. There are rumors that it will be on the next album, which he better be working on right now. 2014 tour in North America, Mr. Springsteen? So I recorded the audio from the video as a voice memo on my iPhone. Bruce fans will do anything for a few minutes with their favorite musician.

Related links:

Wrigley x 2. Two wonderful nights at Wrigley Field in September 2012. My favorite musician and my favorite ballpark.

I believe in rock and roll. My very first blog post, in which I tell how much I love rock and roll and how it all started.

The 12-12-12 concert for Sandy last December. A great night and a British invasion.

Live music is always better and here’s why.

September, musical birthdays…and nostalgia

September. It was a lovely month. Usually it means no more hot weather…for which I shout hurray. On a Sunday morning walk, I celebrated the charms of North Avenue beach by hanging out for a while at the Chess Pavilion. It’s a beautiful refuge from the sun and my favorite place to take a break on the lakefront. The Chess Pavilion was built in 1957, designed by architect Maurice Webster. Sculptor Boris Gilbertson carved the stone chess pieces and the incised chess figures.


The Man–at 64

Happy birthday, Bruce

September is also the month of Bruce Springsteen’s birthday (the 23rd), which gives me an excuse to post a photo of him looking great at whatever his age is. This year it’s 64. Here’s a photo of him on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, where he played his first South American concerts in many years.

Happy birthday, Leonard

And it’s the month of other important birthdays. Like Leonard Cohen (the 21st), who at 79 is still touring, looking fabulous and sounding like his usual charming, gravel-voiced self. He’s sort of a lounge lizard version of Tom Waits. Leonard is still touring on his latest album, Old Ideas. He’ll be in Australia and New Zealand in November. I reviewed his March concert at the Chicago Theater.

Remembering Trane

And it’s also the month to remember the late great John Coltrane, who shares Bruce’s birthday, September 23. If Trane were alive today, he would be 87. His death at the age of 40 was a tragedy and an immense loss to the music world. He was and is today enormously influential to young musicians. He was beginning to experiment with avant-garde jazz (as in his spiritual album A Love Supreme) as well as with eastern religions.

Trane’s biography and legacy are complex. He’s been treated as a religious figure by some African-American churches; there is at least one film about the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco; and a church in New Jersey includes him on a list of African-American saints. You’ll find some beautiful images and a great Coltrane quote on that church page. And they hold services every Sunday with the Coltrane liturgy.

Bungalow nostalgia


My house, a very fine house

Before going on a Berwyn bungalow tour last week, I was exploring far northwest side real estate to see how bungalows are currently valued. (They are real values, solidly built small houses in pleasant older neighborhoods.) I decided to search for the house where I grew up and was pleased to find a great photo of it from the time of its last sale in 2009. The house is on Rutherford Avenue in the Montclare neighborhood, near the intersection of Grand and Oak Park avenues. My parents bought the house in 1938 and lived there for about 30 years.

The standard bungalows in Berwyn all have similar layouts. Small front hall, living room, dining room, kitchen, half bath and sometimes a small bedroom on the first floor. The second floor typically has sloped ceilings in the two bedrooms plus one full bath. These are small houses, typically 1200-1500 square feet. My parents’ house, even though it didn’t have a bungalow façade, had exactly that inside layout. The developer on that block decided to spiff up the exteriors by applying  “Tudor” façades. I could draw the floor plan from memory this minute.

“Super-bungalows,” are larger and have different space layouts, more bedrooms and baths. We saw a few of those in Berwyn Sunday. The tour is a self-guided walking tour to seven or eight houses, with docents stationed at each house to guide visitors through the interiors. It’s an annual event, so put it on your calendar for September 2014. I recommend it highly.

Remembering Chile’s 9/11

Remembering 9/11/73, the day that changed everything–in Chile

We observed the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center this week. News channels had at least one story on the memorial observances. MSNBC relived the entire experience, replaying the NBC news footage from that fateful morning, minute by minute.

180px-Death_and_the_MaidenIn Santiago, Chile, they remembered their own 9/11, which had an even more profound impact on Chilean society.  The Christian Science Monitor reported that “President Sebastian Pinera marked the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende on Wednesday by urging Chileans to heal from—but never forget—the events of Sept. 11, 1973, that launched a bloody 17-year dictatorship.” Allende was a democratically elected socialist who launched the “Chilean path to socialism.” He nationalized the copper industry (mostly owned by US companies) and used the money to improve education and health care for his people. The US–meaning the CIA–found a way to sow chaos and provoke the military coup. Chile’s national history museum opened an exhibit this week to mark the anniversary.

Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman had a poignant article in the September 8 New York Times, titled “9/11: The Day Everything Changed, in Chile.”  He and his friend  Claudio Jimeno were among four advisers to President Allende when the government was under threat of a military takeover by the forces of General Augusto Pinochet.  The advisers  rotated nights at La Moneda, the presidential palace, to keep watch and alert the leader to any emergency.  Dorfman was to keep watch on Monday night, September 10, but changed nights with his friend because of a family obligation. The rest is history, of course. Jimeno was taken prisoner in the coup, tortured and became one of the desaparecidos.

Dorfman is author of the novel and play Death of the Maiden, which has been dramatized on screen as well as stage.  Victory Gardens Theatre will mount a production of the play in June 2014.  The 1994 film starred Sigourney Weaver as the activist who believed she had been raped and tortured by a doctor who befriends her husband. The events could have happened in most any country under siege today, but it was Chile. Chile after 9/11.

Bruce Springsteen honors Victor Jara, Chilean hero


image courtesy

Bruce and the E Street Band performed in Santiago, Chile, on September 11, their first show in South America since the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour in 1988. Bruce took the opportunity to honor Victor Jara, Chilean poet, activist and Allende supporter, by performing his song “Manifiesto” during the encore set.  Jara was tortured and killed after the 1973 coup.

This weekend: Chicago

Summer in Chicago is drawing to an end, but there are great outdoor and indoor activities in my city this weekend.

Festa Italiana

bg-1-141469Summer is the time for street and neighborhood festivals.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s in little Italy, the old Italian neighborhood near the UIC campus. Festa Italiana runs through Sunday on Taylor Street between Racine and Ashland. There’s food from all the great Taylor Street restaurants and entertainment ranging from Italian-surnamed crooners to new bands such as This Must Be the Band, Acoustic Generation and my favorite band name, Inbound Kennedy.

The highlight of the festival, for some, will be the meatball-eating contest.  Personally, I’m grossed out by food-gorging displays.  The winner will be the person who eats eight meatball-slider sandwiches in two minutes. (That is disgusting.)

Lill Street Art Festival

The Lill Street Art Center (which started out on Lill Street) is celebrating its 10th year in its Ravenswood location, at the corner of Ravenswood and Montrose. The opening reception tonight will celebrate Best Served Hot: Ceramics for the Coffee Ritual, cosponsored by Intelligentsia Coffee. Saturday will include an open house and block party.  Lill Street Art Center offers classes, a gallery and studio space for artists in ceramics, metalsmithing and jewelry, painting and drawing, printmaking, textiles, glass,  digital arts and photography.  I treasure a few pieces of ceramic jewelry from Lill Street.


smalldvdIn honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, you should watch the documentary about Bayard Rustin, the strategist and activist who organized the march.  He was a key adviser to MLK until he was asked to leave (or was pushed out) because of his political past (socialist) and sexual orientation (gay). The film is Brother Outsider (available on DVD and streaming). It’s an excellent view of Rustin’s background, leadership and his activist life after 1963.  President Obama will award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin posthumously.  It’s bloody well time.

The Huffington Post has a good article on Rustin by Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College.

Anna Karenina, the gorgeous Joe Wright version of Tolstoy’s tragic  novel with a script by Tom Stoppard, is showing occasionally on HBO right now.  If you haven’t seen it, do.  It’s creatively staged–and staged is the right word because much of it is set in an old theater.  The railroad scenes, as ice-encased trains arrive in Moscow or St. Petersburg, are not to be missed.


Have you been to Big & Little’s? It’s a fine place to stop for a fish taco, a fried oyster or shrimp po’ boy (my favorite) and many varieties of  burger and sandwich choices.  Also foie gras & fries or truffle fries.  Yum. Delish. Not fancy.  Big & Little’s is at 860 N Orleans, just north of Chicago Avenue. There’s a tiny parking lot and you can sit inside or outside (as I did today) or carry out.  Cash only.  It’s been featured on the Food Network’s Triple-D (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) and on Chicago’s Best on WGN and on Check Please on WTTW.

Wish I was at the Jersey Shore

brucenoir_bkgnd_only250I often wish that and I occasionally go to that neighborhood we call Springsteenville: Freehold, Asbury Park and West Long Branch, New Jersey. This is one of those weekends. There’s a Bruce Noir Film Festival in Asbury Park. The five films being shown are those he’s mentioned in interviews or in songs.

Since I can’t be there, I’ll find another way to watch them. The films are:

        — Gun Crazy (1950; on which Springsteen based his song “Highway 29” from the Nebraska  album)

— Badlands (1973; based on the Charles Starkweather murder spree story, which Springsteen tells in the song “Nebraska”)

— Out of the Past (1947; a Robert Mitchum film about a private eye)

— Atlantic City (1980; a Louis Malle film with script by playwright John Guare, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon)

— Thunder Road (1958; Robert Mitchum plays a bootlegger trying to save the family moonshine business from big-city gangsters; lots of great road footage as Mitchum drives a “tanker,” a car modified to carry alcohol in the fuel tank)