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Sunday, 22 March 2020

Getting the blues in Chicago

Getting the blues in Chicago

Monday 18th June 2018
Following my adventures in New York and Detroit I was embarking on the final leg of my tour and heading for Chicago. Passing time until my train journey started I took in the Sweden v South Korea World Cup game on the television in my hotel room. Supporting Sweden of course! Sweden won 1-0 to progress in the tournament and I was sure Gareth, Jenny and Polly would be celebrating in Stockholm.

I ordered a taxi to take me to the station, which didn’t appear to be too far from my hotel as it happened but in the heat, 64o, it would have been silly to walk it. Railway stations always hold an interest for me, particularly foreign ones. I like comparing them to those back home and in my experience I have to say, most of the ones I’ve visited don’t compare at all. Detroit was no exception. A nondescript building which housed the ticket office and waiting room beset on a sparse piece of land conjuring up an image more akin to a mid county branch line, was disappointing. Maybe railways are not that important or cherished in this part of America I pondered. Sitting in the waiting area with nearly an hour to spare the time was spent studying my travelling companions who gradually came in to fill all the seats. One I couldn’t miss was a huge black lady taking up two seats on a bench who immediately filled me with dread, should she have a perch alongside me on the train. Thankfully she didn’t.

We embarked the Amtrak from the platform which was in the open air, a narrow strip the health and safety merchants at home would have a field day on. So began the 8 hour journey to the ‘Windy City’.
If I was looking forward to replicating the memorable Memphis to New Orleans journey I had undertaken the previous year I was to be disappointed. The air conditioning was nil, and the scenery was the same. Dull. You imagine criss crossing America by train to be full of wonderful landscapes, peaks, lakes and isolated townships with their own peculiarities. Which had made the New Orleans run, transgressing through Louisiana and Mississippi, the swamplands, a really true experience. Detroit to Chicago was far less inspiring. Tedious. Only place that distracted the boredom was Kalamazoo which had me straight away singing the old Glenn Miller song in my head; 

‘A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H, I got a gal in Kalamazoo
Don’t want to boast but I know she’s the toast of Kalamazoo
Zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo’

They don’t write lyrics like that anymore! Or maybe they do. 
All the same it had me thinking; ‘so this is where the place is!’

The journey was monotonous, I was surprised by the lack of anything remotely interesting to look at. And it wasn’t helped with the train stopping regularly in a loop to allow one of the legendary mile long freight trains to pass. I did pass some time in the buffet bar where I  managed some idle chat with other bored passengers. One guy proved to be a music nut like myself and an engrossing conversation passed an hour, talking about the early 60s rock and roll scene both here in the States and in the UK. Unsurprisingly he had never heard of Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Cliff Richard, Mark Wynter… but was intrigued when I told him about The Tornados being the first British group to have a number one hit on their Billboard Charts in 1962. And I was co-writing the biography of the Tornados drummer Clem Cattini. 

Contrasting with Detroit, the Union Station, Chicago was like an airport. Negotiating my way through the complex which reminded me of Brazil’s São Paulo International Airport, endless, (I had a connection flight there from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires in 2016, a nightmare!) I eventually found my way to an exit and a taxi rank, where the queues were stretching way way back into the station. Took me some time and then the journey to my hotel, the Raffaello was equally as long. Rush Hour apparently! 

The Raffaello was well situated, just a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan and well placed to explore the city’s delights. Settled in, refreshed, the time was 8pm and tired after a long day I strolled down the avenue to get a feel of the area and find somewhere to eat. A bar about half a mile way looked comfortable and aching for a drink I entered, sat on a stool at the bar, ordered a beer and a Fajita Mexican meal which went down a treat. Pleasurable it was!  As was the chat with the barman who enlightened me on the blues clubs, which was the main reason I had wanted to come to Chicago.
Nice way to end the day. But not before I took the elevator in the hotel to the rooftop ‘speakeasy style’ Drumbar, 17 storeys up. Surprised, not sure why, the bar was busy, background music and the phalanx of guests providing a relaxed and cool backdrop. 
View from the rooftop

Described; ‘The moody yet energetic bar boasts an intimate indoor lounge area and a beautiful outdoor terrace with views of Lake Michigan and the Hancock building. Drumbar’s spirits menu is comprised of an unparalleled selection of earnestly sought after whiskeys, scotches, bourbons and cognacs. Many of these are limited released, one-of-a-kind, highly allocated products meant to offer some of the world’s most unique spirits to guests. Drumbar also has a unique partnership with The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, an organisation that selects and bottles single-cask scotches from distilleries all over Scotland.’

All of which would have impressed my friends back home.. but I settled for a couple of bottles of cold beer! And called it a night.

Tuesday 19th June
Chicago is famous for many things but I guess none more so than the blues clubs, and the infamous and legendary Al Capone. We all grew up watching the great Hollywood gangster movies depicting the 1920s and 30s prohibition era, starring James Cagney, Edmond O’Brien, the Dead End Kids. ‘Top of the world Ma!’ and all that. One of my favourite movies was the 1967 ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ starring Jason Robards. The story of Capone’s henchmen gunning down members of his rival 
Bugsy Moran’s gang in a garage situated at 2122 N. Clark St. in the Lincoln Park area. For me, this was the main port of call I really wanted to see.

I bought a ticket for one of the ‘gangster’ tours and joined a gang of around a dozen others on the so-called ‘Black Bus’. Good way to see the city apart from anything else I figured, but it was the mobster sites I really wanted to see. Turned out to be, I have to say, slightly disappointing.
The guide, a youngish student looking type at the front of the bus was very informative, and amusing but after around 20 minutes it all just sounded like waffle to me. As if he was trying to think of something else to say. First destination on the tour was the Biograph Theatre in North Lincoln Avenue where back in 1934 another famous gangster, John Dillinger, was gunned down by the police. Now to many, Dillinger was decidedly second division compared to Capone, probably not as many films made about him! He was in fact, the more you learn about him, an interesting character achieving legendary status ‘of near Robin Hood proportions’ our guide informed us. America like their ‘gangs’, the Bonnie and Clyde Barrow Gang that rampaged through the States around the same time for instance. And of course before them the Jesse James Gang in the Wild West days. Well John had his ‘Dillinger Gang”, hitting the road and robbing a couple of dozen banks AND four police stations, which must have been a tad embarrassing. John escaped from jail twice, and obviously believing his own hype, ‘courted publicity’ which the media seized on to build him up as a right character with a ‘colourful personality’, ‘full of bravado’. J.Edgar Hoover, Director of the F.B.I. thought otherwise however and decided enough was enough and set about cornering him.

Dillinger had managed to escape from four states with the police on his tail, for almost a year. Returning to Chicago in July 1934 he found refuge in a brothel owned by Romanian prostitute, Ana Cumpănaș, who, suspicious, informed police and federal agents of his whereabouts. On July 22 the police closed in on the Biograph Theatre where he was enjoying an afternoon out with his girlfriend Polly and Ana who by the sounds of it, invited herself along, eating popcorn and watching ‘Manhattan Meldrama’ a gangster film, naturally, starring Clark Gable. 

Exiting the theatre they were confronted by Federal agents, led by Melvin Purvis and Samuel Cowley. John drew his gun and tried to run, but was shot in an alley adjacent to the theatre.
And here we were, in the alley, listening to this tale and trying to imagine what it must have been like to witness the scene that occurred here some 70 odd years ago. Fascinating really. Made Capone sound boring!

Well that was interesting but I really did want to find out more about the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Our guide gave us some info on Al Capone’s exploits, how he virtually ran the whole of Chicago in the 20s and 30s, the speakeasies, the liquor rackets, the lawyers - and his battles with Bugsy’s mobsters. What he didn’t do, was enlighten us much on the infamous St Valentine’s Day massacre. Sure, we went down Clark Street where the garage was, but we virtually drove right past it! Ok, a lot has changed, the garage is no more, long gone, but the wall where Bugsy’s men were lined up and machine gunned was still there. Truth be told, set back from the street, nobody would know or be any wiser of its significance. But surely we could have stopped and got out to have a look, take a picture of the wall even if it has been re-painted and re-pointed! 
Anyway, we moved on, around a few streets which I could have sworn we drove around about three times. Stopped opposite a store where another battle had ensued, ‘you can still see the bullet holes’ and the tour was finished off with a visit to a bar where the walls were adorned with framed copies of front pages of 1930s Chicago Tribune news reports on the gangsters.

I don’t think I was the only one who left the Black Bus a little underwhelmed but there you are.
The Windy City Rebels
So, back at base, refreshed and changed, I set off to find the House of Blues Club. A venue of particular interest for me in that Gareth had played there with Speedhorn just a few years before. Impressive it was too. A large quite imposing building, a couple of floors, bars, a souvenir shop. The venue reminded me a bit of the old Bailey’s Clubs we had in the U.K. back in the 70s. Good vibe there. A fellow called Mike Wheeler on acoustic guitar entertained the crowd before being followed by The Windy City Rebels, great name, and a great band. After buying a couple of tee shirts I settled in for some beers, and a meal, hamburger and fries, which was crap! Didn’t really surprise me. Ive never been that impressed generally with American cuisine. But never mind, the music and beer was good. Most enjoyable way to spend an evening. Tomorrow would be another good day, I was excited and looking forward to visiting the famous Chess Studios. 

Wednesday June 20th
Waking up on my penultimate day of this trip/ tour around New York, Detroit and Chicago I lay thinking about the highlights and sights I’d encountered so far. I’d had an agenda of sorts, to visit as many of the music establishments/ venues I could as well as the obvious points of interest like Central Park, Times Square, Greenwich Village. 

Being a blues fan since the days of the ‘British Blues Boom’ of the mid 60s and the earlier British R & B scene of the Stones, Kinks, Animals, Downliners Sect a visit to the Chess Studios here in Chicago had always been high on my list. I knew it lay on South Michigan Avenue, number 2120 to be exact. I remembered that from way back when I bought the Stones ‘Five By Five’ EP, which included an instrumental track titled with the address of the studio. Not that I realised it at the time. 
Getting around these cities is fairly straightforward when you get the hang of it. All grids and blocks. Michigan Avenue was running along just behind my Raffaello Hotel and I assumed that going by that, finding the Chess Studio would be a doddle. Which isn’t too far from the truth….
I decided to walk for a bit to view the shops, restaurants and bars before with one eye on the clock, deciding to get what I thought they called the metro. Chess was about five miles away! 
This was an unexpected delight as well, much of the ‘metro’, which I discovered is referred to as the ‘L’ line is overhead, ‘L’ is short for elevated’  and the ironwork constructions are exactly like you see in the old films of Chicago. Gives you a feel of walking around history. Nearest station to the studio was Cermak-McCormick Place. A new station opened only couple of years before in 2015. Walking distance about ten minutes. With time to spare, the studio wasn’t open until 12 noon, I investigated the surrounding area, back streets where you always find items of interest. And I came across a graffiti daubed row of units under the ironworks of the ‘L’. Not the usual scribbled mess you normally see, the graffiti was very artful, decorative, and two coaches parked outside were equally impressive. Think of the days of Sgt Pepper and John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce and you get the idea. 

Standing waiting patiently outside Chess I was joined by another chap, a bespectacled student looking type with camera over his shoulder and notebook in hand. We acknowledged each other before the lady in reception opened her door and invited us in.

A brief history and parting of a dollar or two, forget what it was exactly but that didn’t or doesn’t matter, and Mel, a charming and enthusiastic receptionist took us on our tour. First of all she asked us to introduce ourselves. ‘I’m Clive” I said, “from England’ . The other guy introduced himself as “Chris Reynolds, journalist for the L.A.Times”. What! I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d told us he was a Vietnam vet! He looked the part.

Mel had an MP3 player, interjecting stories about Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and so on recorded in this very studio. Which was almost surreal. ‘Johnny B.Goode’ came blasting out. “This was recorded in this very room”. Then Etta James, 'At Last', Bo Diddley. Felt as if I’d been transported to heaven, really quite emotional. Then finally, Mel told us tales about when the Rolling Stones recorded here back in 1964. ‘It’s All Over Now’, one of my all time favourites came out of the speakers. I visualised Charlie set up in the corner, Bill, Keith and Brian Jones perched on stools with their guitars. Mick behind the mic. And it sounded great! Surreal. What an experience. I’ve been to Stax and Sun in Memphis, Hitsville in Detroit, Capitol in L.A. For me, this, Chess, topped the lot.
Mel showing us around.
Before leaving I bought a couple of C.Ds and managed to have a chat and swap emails with Chris Reynolds. Thought he might come in handy somewhere down the line. 

Rest of the day was spent wandering around the shops, bars and down by the river where Pier Park  is situated.
'The epitome of fun. Its where you'll find the amazing Centennial Wheel, the Pepsi Wave Swinger, a 1920's inspired musical carousel, and other nostalgic fairground rides. The Centennial Wheel soars to near 200 feet, with year round climate controlled gondolas for the most spectacular Ferris Wheel ride ever.. It's an iconic part of the Chicago skyline and treasured piece of Chicago history, harkening to the City's 1893 World's Fair. You can even book a VIP Centennial Wheel experience in a glass bottomed plush seated gondola.'

Indeed. Wonderful. If you like fairgrounds. Chicago River at one time polluted the city until authorities decided to miraculously alter the flow so that the pollution, sewage flowed out in to the lake instead. Remarkable!
I came across a bookshop which was excellent. Bought four music books. Nothing I love better, mooching around a bookshop.
And that was about it. Next morning I was getting picked up by Uber for my ride to O’Hare Airport and my return to Britain. As it normally does, it felt as if I’d been away for weeks. I had crammed quite a bit in though..
Like to think I’d return to all these places again sometime..and I’ve a feeling I will.

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