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Wicker Park Days [Part IV]: Rock on Chicago

So, where does rebellion end and exploitation begin in this new post-modern bohemian symbiosis? What do you do when trend-setting, tastemaking, and cultural arbitering becomes a commodity? What do you do when The Man you've been flipping off decides unexpectedly that you're cool - which you've known all along, of course - and wants to capitalize on you, except on your terms, for things you'd be doing anyway?

Lloyd spends some time on Wesley Willis (although Willis is annoyingly absent from the index at the back), and his impossible ascension to notoriety from the neighborhood. Willis was a large, black, diagnosed schizophrenic known for his random headbutts - said to be given as a greeting - and for his raving conversations with the unseen as he is for his music. He went from being a homeless man wandering Wicker Park, selling his drawings and tapes of his lyrics delivered over a K-Mart casio keyboard, to a two-year deal on American Records and an appearance on MTV.

For Lloyd, Willis's case is a perfect example of the scene's paradox. On the one hand, corporate cogs unquestionably exploited him; not only was this a case of someone else using an artist, but an artist who was too crazy to even register anything beyond vague awareness. On the other hand, Willis got to be a part of something, the inner circle of the Wicker Park scene, and was certainly able to live a better life than another homeless schizophrenic might have lived.

It was probably win-win for Willis, but what about for others who sense they're being exploited, and are more aware of the repercussions? It raises a central question about cultural rebellion, so essential to Wicker Park's bohemian ethos: How can you rebel against the corporation, or big industry, if it appreciates you for your stance, and wants to show the world how great you are (while cashing in selling your cachet)? Should you have to sacrifice what drives and fuels you, that sincere artistic passion that is suddenly chic, just to stick it to Him? Should you stop being who you are and want to be, just to screw all the people who flock to the scene hoping only to catch a reflection of your cool?

My friends and I actually listened to Wesley Willis in college, in the late '90s. His greatest hits CDs released on Alternative Tentacles Records gave us a stable of inside jokes, owing both to his bizarre lines as well as the non sequitur advertisements with which he often ended his songs. A song called "I Wupped Batman's Ass" was an instant punchline. "Who Killed John Columbo," after describing the murder of a Chicago taxi driver, ends, "Folgers - it's good to the last drop." He tells Liz Phair, "I will always love you like a milkshake," before concluding, "Tower Records, the difference is selection." He tells Alanis Morissette that she "can really rock Saddam Hussein's ass," before finishing, "Taco Bell, make a run for the border." And so on.

I knew Willis used to be, I guess you'd say, based out of Wicker Park, but the musician that most attracted me to the neighborhood was that vanilla milkshake, Liz Phair. Much more than Urge Overkill, or Veruca Salt, or on a lesser-known level nationally, Kill Hannah, Phair was the one I was most proud to name-check. I used to put "Polyester Bride" on my mix CDs in the late '90s, and I could still follow along with some of the Exile in Guyville songs when I saw her on tour last fall.

Phair, though, if the term means anything, definitely did sell out, and stands as another example of the paradox of the scene's development. In chapter seven, "The Neighborhood in Cultural Production," Lloyd quotes something Phair said in a 1994 interview with longtime Chicago music critic Greg Kot: "I'm cute enough that you can photograph me, you can dress me up, and I'll do it, I'll smile and dance around." Still, as the Village Voice declared her artist of the year - the first woman to be so honored since Joni Mitchell in 1974 - she decidedly put the Wicker Park music scene on the national map first (although many might suggest it would have happened anyway). Of course, this unearthed that unique tension that permeates a place like Wicker Park: What good is it to be so hip unless it's seen? Style exists in relation to its acknowledgment. Even the most sincere artists don't create art only to hide it in an attic. Is it possible that art, in this sense, is always a compromise?


Lloyd spends time in that chapter discussing how Phair was considered by those in the scene to be second-tier, and how her multiple successes never brought her in any closer. This, despite the fact that she put Wicker Park superstars - bands like Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, and others unquestionably in the inner circle - on the larger cultural map, thereby helping many in the neighborhood music and arts community to achieve new heights of success as attention poured in. It begs the question, which Lloyd never asks, of how someone who's never in can actually sell out. But in some sense it was the fact that she was never on the inside - and more so that she probably never could be, I thought at the time from a hundred miles away - that comprised Phair's appeal for me. I didn't think I'd ever be an insider to a scene like that, either. I wasn't a natural - not 100%, anyway. So, you just do your thing and let the perceptions fall where they may - that's the notion with which I identified.

"Polyester Bride" actually captures one of Lloyd's best observations, furthering that notion of preserving boundaries, as one of the song's characters is a bartender of the sort that Lloyd's interviewees call "startenders." It's the phenomenon of community celebrity that permeates an inward-looking neighborhood like Wicker Park. Bartenders can offer favors, and are in many ways the scene's perimeter gatekeepers. From the song:

I was talking, not two days ago
To a certain bartender I'm lucky to know
And I asked Henry, my bartending friend
If I should bother dating unfamous men

And Henry said,
You're lucky to even know me,
You're lucky to be alive.
You're lucky to be drinking here for free,
'cause I'm a sucker for your lucky, pretty eyes

That's probably the most interesting part of the book, where Lloyd describes how being in the industry - bartenders, servers, etc. - opens doors to social events like underground parties and art openings. To be in the know, or to know the right people, becomes a consuming lifestyle to maintain, Lloyd suggests, and it's downright fascinating to consider the scenesters' experiences.

Of course, as I think about Meghan's brush at Filter as well as my own early neighborhood encounters, I wonder whether those most concerned with maintaining the cultural boundaries are those most afraid of falling outside them. Those truly on the inside perhaps know that what they are a part of is not so idyllic as the others on the fringe would suggest, and preserving the scene was never the point. Dave, at least, got that. Building it was the point, and in one sense the building is over, and in the other it continues. The second sense, continuation, is because building a scene is not something that can actually be accomplished. The journey is the destination, to invoke those familiar terms, but some of those in the scene (but not all) will never see this. As Phair told Billboard in 1993, quoted by Lloyd, "The standoffishness of the indie scene just screams insecurity to me."

Then again, since I never really got in the circle even as it existed a decade later, I wonder if maybe the insecurity is on both sides of the line. I have to admit, I was guilty of enjoying my brief moments as a satellite scenester. My favorite bartender was at the Artful Dodger - Niki. She shaved her head a few months after I met her, which complemented her fantastic tattoos nicely. She was on Chicago's new Rollergirls team, but really wanted to move to Berlin. (Niki - if you're reading this, move to Austin! There are so many women like you, on the Rollergirl teams and beyond, you will wonder why you ever lived anywhere else!) I loved those evenings at the Artful Dodger, and she picked up on the fact that I would sometimes bring girls I dated up there as something of a test, and played along. After all, it wasn't your everyday bar, and not every kind of girl would have liked it. Niki routinely cussed out customers for trying to order Miller Lite or Bud Light, which they did not stock on principle. And some nights she'd pull me a free pint. When I heard a few weeks later that the Artful Dodger closed the weekend I moved away, it left something of a void, and drove home the fact that I had left something that wouldn't have persisted anyways - and I'm talking about the neighborhood at-large, not just the bar.

Guiltily, I think: It was better before I left.


Tomorrow: Nelson Algren and the New Economy.


Ex-Chicagoan Joel C. Boehm lives and studies law in Austin, Texas. He still maintains Agony & Ivy about, mostly, the Cubs. He has very recently completed his first novel, Just Drive South, and is seeking to publish it. He can be contacted at


Posted on October 5, 2006

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