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Chicago In Song: Hater's Paradise

As we have seen in earlier episodes of Chicago In Song, when it comes to our city's treatment in popular song lyrics, there seems to be a hate-hate relationship going on. Why do they hate us? Why? We're not really such a simmering hell-hole, are we? If you judge by these common-man poets, that's just what we are. This time around, we'll look at a song that comes right out and tells us we're crap, one that bemoans friends getting killed, one that associates the city with Big Brother mind control - and one that actually kind of gets it right.

Wow. Had to look around some for that.

I Hate Chicago/Mark Wills
Well, I think the title pretty much sums this one up. It's a piece of velvet-glove criticism from one of those mainstream, big-hat country acts that play all day long in suburban insurance offices and convenience store gas islands. Mark Wills' music falls right into that category - twangy in a slick, overproduced way, less-than-adventurous song structure, sentimental, un-ironic lyrics about lost loves and the perils of life as a country star. Yep, I bet it's tough being Mark Wills, what with all the time being spent away from his baby while hanging out at Dick Cheney's place and doing a duet with Lynne, supporting the war policy like crazy. I guess someone has to make sacrifices to bring us victory.

One way he's doing this is by breaking out a song written by Chris Dubois and Lee Thomas Miller called "I Hate Chicago." Now, on the most obvious level, the singer hates Chicago because he associates it with a failed love affair with "Sara."

Sara told me that she only
Needed space to think things out
Then she met some guy named Tony
Guess where they live now?

That's right I hate Chicago
I hate Chicago
Man, I hate Chicago

Sara, it seems, at one time told the singer she wanted to settle down with him in a little farm on the outskirts of town, which, of course, represents the good life. Instead, she throws him over for some (obviously ethnic with a name like "Tony") city slicker. The not-so-subtle message here is that Chicago represents temptation and ultimately corruption in the form of sexy immigrants. And in a just world, no woman would want to give up living out in the middle of nowhere with a monster truck-driving, Bush-backing would-be cowboy for a dynamic, exciting city with a racially diverse mix of people. Nope, it just wouldn't happen. Good ol' 'Mericans always win out.

Now, just to add in a few more digs disguised as humor, the singer lists some of the things he hates about Chicago:

Tuesday morning sports page, I've got coffee in my cup
A smile creeps across my face, the Braves beat the Cubs
I hate Chicago

I'm changing planes in Dallas, I ain't going through O'Hare
It's a thousand dollars more I know, but I don't care
I hate Chicago

From their WGN station to their seven feet of snow
The rock band in the 80's to the Oprah Winfrey show
I hate Chicago

Even though I take issue with the spirit in which it was given, I have to agree the singer has a point with WGN, snow, Oprah and O'Hare. Those are things that I certainly associate with Chicago, but am ambivalent about or not emotionally attached to. They are all double-edged swords to my way of thinking, about which opinions can vary widely.

But the Cubs - well, no Cubs fan, no matter how much they disagree with how the team is run, can smile when the Braves beat them. That's going to the core of what it means to be from Chicago. There's no other way to take that than as a provocation. And which '80s rock band is he talking about? The band Chicago? It better not be Cheap Trick, because then, dammit, we're going to have a problem. If he means Styx, though, well, maybe we can talk.

Born in Chicago/Paul Butterfield
I have a loose rule about not including "blues heritage" references in this column, because of the typecasting. We all know Chicago's cultural image to the rest of the world is first and foremost about the blues and so there's no use going on about it here for the umpteenth time. But it's just so darn hard to escape. Plus Paul Butterfield, I believe, is thought of as much as a popular artist rather than strictly as a bluesman, even though he certainly was a master of that idiom, introducing it to Baby Boomers like no one else.

"Born in Chicago," which Butterfield wrote as a tribute to his growing up in Hyde Park bandmate Nick Gravenites wrote, is notable as a virtuoso example of his prowess with the blues harp, an instrument that Butterfield made his own. But it also was probably the best song on one of the most influential rock records of all time, 1965's The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - the disc that really introduced white America to the electrified Chicago blues for the first time. As such, its lyrics deserve inclusion:

I was born in Chicago in 1941
I was born in Chicago in 1941
Well my father told me
Son you had better get a gun

Well my first friend went down when I was 17 years old
Well my first friend went down when I was 17 years old
Well there's one thing I can say 'bout that boy
He got bold

Well my second friend went down when I was 21 years of age
Well my second friend went down when I was 21 years of age
Well there is one thing I can say about that boy
He got dead

Well now rules are alright if there's someone left to play the game
Well now rules are alright if there's someone left to play the game
All my friends are going
And things just don't seem the same

What's probably the very first white blues-rock song about Chicago also set up the conundrum that has faced such Caucasian artists ever since: the lyrics sound authentically autobiographical, but they're not. I doubt Butterfield's father, who was Hyde Park attorney, ever advised the classical music student Paul to "get a gun." And while I'm sure there were white kids getting shot in and around Hyde Park in the late '50s, it certainly wasn't the same kind of thing that was going on just a few miles away in, say, Englewood.

So it seems the never-ending struggle for authenticity that is the hallmark of the white blues artist has been going on since the first Baby Boomer listened to his first Robert Johnson record - probably in the upstairs bedroom of a nice old home in Hyde Park.

Chicago Institute/Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Alright, this is really a strange one, and thus I love it. Manfred Mann's Earth Band, who were riding ultrahigh in 1977 with their smash Springsteen cover "Blinded By the Light," spent the next few months working on a follow-up LP called Watch. Like all MMEB records, it was quirky progressive rock, the kind of stuff the Kinks were also doing in the '70s - one or two hand-clapping, riff-laden pop rock tracks (such as a very nice re-working of their smash Dylan cover from 10 years earlier, "The Mighty Quinn," and Robby Robertson's "Davy's On the Road Again") followed by indulgent, head-scratching forays into experimental weirdness.

Firmly in the second camp is "Chicago Institute," an original written by Earth Band members Mann and guitarist Dave Flett and by Peter Thomas, a German TV and movie soundtrack composer. Its lyrics are basically a paranoid rant about how computers literally have our numbers. It's a stroll down Orwell Lane, about how Big Brother controls our meaningless, numbered lives from cradle to grave, and about how only rebellious individualism can save our basic humanity. And Big Brother, it seems, is based in Chicago.

There's an institute in Chicago
With a room full of machines
And they live this side of the sunrise
And burn away your dreams

Once you fly to Chicago - in Chicago you will die
When that institute in Chicago has recorded you and I

I have to admit that, after painstaking research, I have no idea what "institute" Manfred is talking about. Of course there's the Art Institute of Chicago, which has rooms full of priceless impressionist masterpieces and medieval armor. But rooms full of machines that burn away your dreams? Not that I saw on my last tour. Maybe they keep those kinds of things down in the sub-basement along with the less popular Seurats and Manets.

Perhaps the word "institute" is throwing me. Maybe it's a British-ism and by "institute" Manfred really means a government institution, such as the Social Security Administration or the Cook County Jail. Now that might make a little more sense. But, unless there's some kind of talk radio-style conspiracy going on here (which of course is eminently possible), I'm at a loss to find any evidence of a massive federal government record-keeping operation that was going on in '70s Chicagoland. Then again, I'm probably just another clueless victim of the Institute - they don't want me to know.

At the institute in Chicago from the first day you were born
Oh they just can tell what you're feeling
And they can't see how you're torn

When your name's just a number - just a number you will die
'Cause that institute in Chicago never knew you were alive

If anyone knows of any soul-destroying, life-controlling Chicago-based institutes (the Tribune Company excepted), please drop me a message on the Beachwood tipline.

The El/Rhett Miller
It's interesting and perhaps fitting that Rhett Miller, in the marquee song of his first solo album (2002's The Instigator) decided to go all-Chicago all the time with "The El." His great, great first band, the Old 97s, had a strong Chicago connection of course because of their affiliation with local label Bloodshot Records. The 97s also had some of their earliest live club successes in our city's nascent alt-country scene.

Now of course, Miller is a "thinking man's pop star," appearing in Esquire and Vanity Fair and is a regular on the network talk show circuit, popping up regularly on Carson Daly and Jay Leno. I feel good for him because his music is indeed smart, and any time smart pop music gets some commercial success in the screwed-up mainstream music world, I have to say, "alright." I just wish I liked it more. What can I say? It's overproduced and kind of soulless. That's the nature of mainstream pop, I guess. But why, Jerry, why?

Anyway, "The El" is pretty rollicking in a way that sounds a lot more like the Old 97s than Miller's subsequent output has. Lyrically, it reminds me a lot of George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "Golden Ring," (reviewed here) in that it is a song cycle that uses a Chicago locale to tell a story of meeting, falling in love and eventually splitting up. With George and Tammy, it was Chicago pawn shop. For Rhett, well, obviously, it was the El.

Let's say you're in Chicago and you're rattling along on the El
And the one who rides beside you is a stranger to herself
Nobody knows her own heart
You might have been introduced but you drifted apart
You're a long way from where you belong unaware

Let's say you're in Chicago and you're making out under the El
You're trapped in your head humming a tune to yourself
There's a trapdoor in your heart
There's a false bottom line and it's falling apart
You're a long way from where you belong unaware

So far, so good. The singer meets a girl on the El, something that I think has happened to every guy in Chicago. But it's not totally random. He "might have been introduced" to her once before, maybe at a Wicker Park party or at a wedding, a show, or somewhere else. There's an element to Chicago of being a close community, despite its massive size. It's Midwestern and not like New York City in that way. For some reason it just seems more possible to randomly bump into someone you know here than it would in an Eastern city. So points to Rhett for Chicago authenticity.

Although making out under the El is not something I would do. One: cinders. Two: horrible, screeching noises. I kind of like to be able to hear things when I'm making out.

But then things take a turn for the worse, as they always do in good love songs.

Let's say you're in Chicago and you're breaking up all over the El
You were so in love but you were only in love with yourself
Nobody knows her own heart
Things were coming together now they're falling apart
You're a long way from where you belong unaware
You're a long way from where you belong unaware

Another point for Rhett: Chicago hipsters are indeed in love with themselves! I really think he's got this town nailed.

-

Comments welcome.

-

1. From Daniel McNeal:

I'd always thought Chicago Institute was a reference to NORC at the U. of C. (known, back then, as the National Opinion Research Center). It's hard to believe now that only four decades ago this was a novelty, but they were a pioneer in the use of computers to store information on the public, doing massive surveys on behalf of the Depts. of Labor, Defense, HEW (Health Education & Welfare) . . . A "room full of machines" that, however hard they might try, couldn't really tell how you were feeling. And that, coincidentally, is just a couple of blocks from Jackson Park and I'm pretty sure used to have a view of the lake from "just this side of the sunrise," though it's blocked now by new construction.

Not soul-destroying on its own by any means, but Mann and his band always were well ahead of their time and they may have rightly perceived NORC as a harbinger of things to come.

On the other hand I've googled NORC and "Manfred Mann" and I seem to be the only person in the world ever to have made the connection, so maybe I'm just crazy.



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Posted on July 23, 2006


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