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Chicago In Song: Hard Times, Tough Love, Big City

Welcome back to Chicago In Song. This time around we'll look at song references about the city that focus on marital discord, debauched children, the bad attitudes of its residents and its awful weather.

Just another day in the life of Chicago as portrayed in the world of music.

Golden Ring/George Jones
In "Golden Ring," a 1978 hit for the then-married country music couple George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Chicago serves as the backdrop for a weepy, cry-in-your-beer tale of the ups and down of marriage and commitment. It's a perfect example of the kind of Nashville hokum that alt-country is all about destroying.

The song tells of an optimistic man and woman, head over heels in love, deciding to take the plunge. They find a wedding ring "in a pawn shop in Chicago," lending the song a feeling of hard reality, grittiness, and possibly of portending doom. After all, what good can come of anything found in a pawn shop in a down-at-the-heels city often used as code for poverty or hard times in country music lyrics?

In a pawn shop in Chicago
On a sunny summer day
A couple gazes at the wedding rings
There on display

She smiles and nods her head
As he says, 'Honey, that's for you'
It's not much but it's the
Best that I can do

Golden ring
With one tiny little stone
Waiting there
For someone to take it home
By itself
It's just a cold metalic thing
Only love can make a golden wedding ring

So anyway, they get married but soon things go wrong. They end up in a "two-room apartment," presumably also in Chicago, fighting like cats and dogs and then it's Splitsville. The first verse about the ring in the pawn shop is then repeated, thus completing the cycle of Windy City-based misery.

Probably the most interesting thing about this song is that it was predictive of Jones and Wynette's own marriage. Soon after they recorded it, George was deep into the bottle, Tammy was gone, and he found himself at rock bottom. Then he discovered Jesus and country music continued on a trajectory that proved very unfortunate, much like the couple in the song.

Children in Heat/Misfits
Taking a 180-degree turn, we have the Misfits, a late '70s-early '80s horror/punk band starring Glenn Danzig. Their songs were mostly guitar-thrashing odes to the point of intersection between horror movies, Marilyn Monroe kitsch, loud punk rock and brutal poems about lost innocence and death.

Yeah, they were hot for awhile. "Children in Heat" is from one of their very earliest EPs, around 1979 or so, when Danzig and bandmate Jerry Only were being heavily influenced by the Ramones and favored catchy song formats to sing about sex, destruction and bodily functions.

In this song, Chicago seems to be a clear stand-in for Hell itself. Danzig tells us about how today's children are corrupt, evil, street urchins who spend most of their time "pissing blood" for up to seven days at a time, that they have "no conscience," and mostly, "no resistance." I'm assuming he means no resistance to things like punk rock, but that's only a guess.

After pounding their way through a disgusted/admiring tour of how children in heat behave, the Misfits sing:

Children in heat
You can't control them
Why they're running away

Children in heat
Are young little kindle wood
I see them burning
They all changed their names to Chicago

No resistance
No resistance
No resistance

I think what Glenn means here is that these kids are so debased, so completely out of control, and so likely to combust into flames that they might as well be called "Chicago" because they're burning like the great fire of 1871. Nice reference, totally unexpected. Perhaps he also saw the city itself as "kindle wood," a hellish place where human suffering is so intense that the whole place could go up at any second.

If so, I agree, and give Glenn Danzig the Most Realistic Song Lyric I've Found About Chicago So Far Award. Way to go, dude.

You're All Talk/Cheap Trick
From In Colour & Black and White, the youthful full-flowering of Cheap Trick, comes a Chicago reference that has a tinge of authenticity because it comes from locals (or near-locals, since we're talking about Rockford).

Now, I don't know Rick Nielsen personally and I would never presume to put words in his mouth, but this song sounds to me a lot like a resentful jab at the Big City just to the southeast of Rockford, a certain city known for its stockyards, football coaches and attitude-laden ladies who blow into Hicksville and think they own the joint.

"You're All Talk" is one of my favorite, pre-pop sensation Trick songs, with Bun E. Carlos' fast, syncopated drums mic'ed way up, Rick plucking a tricky riff, and Robin Zander's vocals at their snottiest, so much more preferable to his later heart-throbbie thing. The song's signature line is "Please don't go, please don't go away from me."

So on one hand, the singer is urging the girl to stay because he really loves her, but at the same time he's dissing her for thinking she's better than him, presumably because she's a braggart about being wild and from the Big City:

I got my breakfast in bed
You're big stuff in Chicago - so get in bed
This bedroom's only 12-by-10

You're all talk, you're all talk

I got your number for a real good time
Take the phone off the hook and watch you go wild
They say you go nuts and that's what I like

Being "big stuff in Chicago" apparently only got you so far with some folks in the Rockford of 1976. This kind of rootsy, Midwestern authenticity is one of the things that made me really, really like Cheap Trick, and still does. So Rick, if you're reading this, I hope that stuck-up Chicago lady from the song ended up learning a valuable lesson about greater Northeastern Illinois and its male inhabitants.

Windy City Blues/Marshall Tucker Band
Geez, right back to 1976 again.

This song by the Marshall Tucker Band is, of course, all about Chicago, but mostly it concerns the city's status as a job creation hub. It's a slow-moving, countrified lament about how the singer has to live in Chicago in order to do an unspecified job, but longs to leave the cold wind and snow of the north, jump on a southbound train, and hook up once again with his girl from "Roebuck town."

Written by George McCorkle, Doug Gray and Jerry Eubanks of the Tuckers, "Windy City Blues" initially confused me because of the Roebuck reference. I assumed that a Roebuck town girl would be someone from Chicago, because of the city's famous status as the headquarters of Sears, Roebuck & Co. So why did the singer want to leave Chicago to find a Roebuck girl?

I'm sittin' in Chicago on the thirtieth floor
Lookin' down on the city below
My heart is cold as the wind through the streets
And outside it's starting to snow

Weeks ago I left you in sunny Caroline
Sittin' in our home in the pine
I got a job to do that takes me away from you
But your love still remains on my mind

I'm in love with that girl from that Roebuck town
Since I met her she's made my life so sound
She's sweet and she's kind and she's mine all mine
She's the best thing that I'll ever find

Well, paint my wagon if it doesn't turn out there's a Roebuck, South Carolina, population 1,700. Now it all makes sense. Here's this guy on the 30th floor in Chicago (is he working in an office? Nah, probably building one) who is such a Dixie-fied wimp that he can't take a little bone-chilling wind blowing at 50 miles per hour through our lovely, scenic streets going on and on about this girl he's in love with way down South.

To that I say, man, look around! If you can't find some fine lady to go out with in a city like Chicago, especially in the '70s when everyone was all hopped up on inhibition-reducers, you're just not trying. Quit whining and check out Rush Street.

Check out earlier installments of Chicago In Song: (Mostly) A Wretched Place and 20 Flight Rock.



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Posted on April 18, 2006


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