Trope's out of town due to an illness in the family almost instantly I am bored, so I wandered down to Grant Park to see John Mayall's Blues Breakers play at the opening night of the Chicago Blues Festival. To my horror, staring out the window into what should have been the inky darkness of the subway tunnel, I discovered there are now ads deep in the bowels of the CTA. I'm not talking about the poster ads for iPods and divorce lawyers which line the inside of the el cars, I mean video advertisements on giant TV screens. It's devilously ingenious, really. A bank of screens each shows a short segment of a commercial over and over again, so as the train drives past it's like watching a flip-card notebook movie, the kind you used to draw in math class when you should have been learning what a cosine is. Only not quite as pornographic.
The ad was for the Hummer H3, and it really bugged me. I don't want every corner of my life invaded by advertising for products I don't want and couldn't afford anyway, not even from our official sponsor. So imagine my horror when I arrived at Blues Fest to find that, not only had a giant Jumbotron-style TV screen been set up to show rock-video style closeups of the bands while blocking the view of the actual live performance, but that between sets it was used to show an endless loop of really loud commercials. For Fandango, Sharpie pens and Moen faucets, for chrissakes. I tried to imagine the ditzy pre-yuppies, geeky Zeppelin T-shirt clad high school kid, and tatooed lesbians who surrounded me, not to mention Ronne "Woo Woo" Wickers (yes, he was there - the Cubs had the day off) being moved to buy an ugly new faucet by the pursuasive power of these ads.
It's sad, really. Hold on a minute, I gotta go hit Danny's Liquor and Porn before they close or I'll run out of beer.
Okay, I'm back. Let me take this opportunity to put in a product plug for Heineken in the 24 ounce bottle. One time when I was backpacking at Canyonlands National Park in Utah and was becoming dangerously dehydrated, I hallucinated a giant green bottle of Heinie, glistening with sweat and beckoning to me, promising to quench my thirst. Also, the 24-ounce bottle has 2 more ounces than your ordinary double deuce.
Anyway. I'm increasingly dismayed by how every experience in increasingly brought to me by some big evil corporation or other. I mean TV shows are one thing (it comes with an off switch. Did you know that?) but the Blues Festival? A fucking el ride?
Still the show was pretty good. Mayall can't sing anymore (shouldn't have smoked so much) but he can still play piano and harmonica, and the band was great. They played some old Willie Dixon tunes - de rigeur for the Blues Festival - and jammed a lot. Not sure if I'll go back, though. I remember when the blues found me. My first exposure had been through Led Zeppelin, just like the geeky kid standing next to me tonight. Shuffling through cassette tapes (yes, I'm that old) at the Wake Forest college bookstore on a campus visit in high school, I discovered two albums containing songs covered by Zeppelin - Bob Dylan's first record, featuring In My Time of Dying, and I Am the Blues, featuring a whole lot of stuff, including You Shook Me and I Can't Quit You Baby. My first chance to really listen to Dixon was on a long van ride with Jay Gibson. We sprawled in the back of the van and let the music wash over us like revelationl. It was like nodding on painkillers after having your wisdom teeth out. It was like the earth crying out in despair. It was like the sun setting over the Pacific on a quiet beach. It was smooth. That was 1989.
When I moved to Chicago a few years back, the blues became the Checkerboard Lounge, a South Side neighborhood place featuring the Thursday night guitar heroics of Vance Kelley. The cool kids would drive up to see him play, while most U of C dorks wouldn't venture north of 47th street if you paid them. Hell, I once offered this one girl $1,000 if she would walk home from Jimmy's (aka the Woodlawn Tap - about four blocks). So afraid of the neighborhood was she, she turned it down. White people. I mean, really. If the music was "brought to me by" anybody in that era, at least it was Old Style. In 1993 I drove all the way from Ohio to see the Blues festival. Messed up the car doing it, too - I got run off the road by a semi in road construction, and took out a big line of orange and white sawhorses. They shattered and went flying, it was very Dukes of Hazard. I don't know how the windshield survived. Now, I don't know if I'll be going back. They have a very good lineup this year, but I'm not sure I'm up to watching old people try to recapture their glory days on the Jumbotron between commercials. I mean, they even intercut the Bluesbreakers with shots of the skyline, MTV style. I can see the skyline, I screamed to myself. I'm standing right here.
And it's not just the ads. The whole spirit of the thing. It's the videos, the safe choices, the sterile new park . . . it's like they're turning Chicago into some bizarre combination of Midtown Manhattan and the family friendly Vegas of the '90s. It used to be this town was former sharecroppers, pushcart vendors, shifty bartenders, mobsters, anarchists, and Irish street toughs, and that was just City Council. I don't want this place to be too safe and clean, then all the Republicans would move back, and nobody wants that.
But when the sun sets behind that weird red skyscraper, and the sky turns purple and mauve, and the wind shifts and brings the smell of the lake into the park, and Ronnie Woo Woo starts jumping around like a maniac to impress a couple cute tourists, it's still pretty damn cool.