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Chicago in Song: (Mostly) A Wretched Place

How is Chicago portrayed in rock and popular music lyrics?

From the looks of things, songwriters have pigeonholed Chicago basically as the home of the blues--not too surprising, since this is what most of the country does, too. But is that all that is in the minds of songwriters? Are there any other aspects of the city that have inspired songcraft over the years?

Yep. Songwriters have identified the city with elevators, poverty, transportation, political protest, and drugs. Which, I think, is also pretty accurate. This is just a brief sample of what a search of lyrical mentions of Chicago has yielded--minus, of course, the obvious ones like "Sweet Home Chicago," "Jesus Just Left Chicago," or any song by the band Chicago, Jim Croce, Liz Phair or Frank Sinatra.

Song: "20 Flight Rock"
Artist: Eddie Cochran
Comment: One of the greatest rockabilly songs ever, covered by the likes of Paul McCartney, the Stray Cats, Commander Cody . . . the list goes on. The Chicago reference, however, is somewhat puzzling.

The song tells the story of a guy whose baby "lives on the 20th floor uptown." This, apparently, is a problem because "the elevator's broken down." As a result, the poor guy has to walk up all those stairs (20 flights) and by the time he gets to his baby's door, he's "too tired to rock."

The memorable chorus of this wonderful tale:

"So I walk one flight, two flight, three flight, four
Five-six-seven flight, eight flight more
By the 12th I'm startin' to drag
Fifteenth floor I'm ready to sag
Get to the top, I'm too tired to rock."

The Chicago reference comes in the next verse when, referring to the broken elevator, he sings:

"Well, they sent it to Chicago for repairs
'Til it's fixed I'm using the stairs."

This got me to thinking: Is Chicago well known for elevator repairs? Is Otis Elevator Co. from Chicago, for instance?

The answer is No. Otis was founded in Yonkers, N.Y. But Chicago is well known for buildings with elevators--beginning with grain elevators in the 1840s, for which new and innovative "lift" techniques were designed shortly after Elisha Otis first applied steam to a movable platform. Then there were all of those skyscrapers which began popping up in the 1880s and continue to this day. I guess real estate developers never change. Thus the "Second City" syndrome of wanting to outdo New York in everything (especially buildings) led to the city's expertise in elevator development and repair.

And it ended up in a classic rockabilly song. Imagine that.

Song: "In the Ghetto"
Artist: Mac Davis
Comment: I guess everybody knows the Chicago line in this one:

"On a cold and grey Chicago morn,
Another little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mother cries . . . "

The most interesting thing about this song to me is that Mac Davis wrote it. Of the thousands of songs that Elvis made in his post-Sun Records career, this was about the only one I ever even remotely liked. Of course, it was 1970 so I was pretty young and impressionable. But I was really touched by how Elvis, who to me was all about being a redneck, could make me cry over racial injustice.

It also reinforced all of the musical stereotypes about Chicago: a place where poverty-stricken black folks shivered in the cold, wind whipping through the broken windows of their tenements, where crime is the only way out. If only we well-off music-listeners could offer them "a helping hand." That was pretty cool for Elvis, I thought.

Years later I found out that Mac friggin' Davis wrote it. The same guy who had that awful 1970s TV variety show, and who wrote "Watching Scotty Grow" for Bobby Goldsboro. The same guy who ended up representing everything infuriating about cross-over country culture.

So I crossed "In the Ghetto" off my list--even my ironic list.

Song: "Peace Frog"
Artist: The Doors
Comment: A classic Morrison Hotel track that represents another strong Chicago lyrical thread: the 1968 Democratic Convention (see also: "Chicago" by Crosby Stills & Nash).

Like many a good song about Chicago, it's about violence and fighting The Man:

"Blood in the streets, it's up to my ankles
Blood in the streets, it's up to my knee.
Blood on the streets, the town of Chicago.
Blood on the rise, it's following me.
Just about the break of day"

Of course, with Jim Morrison you never quite know if the blood he's singing about belongs to the protesting hippies or is his own, which he might have spilled during some kind of unspeakable pre-concert ritual.

It occurs to me that most songs that mention Chicago can be roughly put into two categories: pre-convention and post-convention. The pre-convention songs seem mostly to be about the city's blues music heritage; post-convention songs are about political disillusionment and protest against suburban values.

Song: "Route 66"
Artist: Bobby Troup
Comment: Immortalized by Nat King Cole, covered by Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, and everybody from Depeche Mode to the Replacements to Wayne Hancock.

Thanks to this song, I learned that Chicago was a transportation hub. It's where great roads start.

"Well if you plan to motor West
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66
Well it winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66"

Of course I know that Route 66 is officially gone. But one of the first things I did when I hit the city was to see where it started. I found it--it started at the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue and Adams. Adams was U.S. Highway 66. Doesn't everyone who realizes this want to get in their car and drive straight from the lions to California?

From this knowledge came the further knowledge that Route 66 went from the Art Institute to Cicero and Joliet, and for some reason this brought me back down to earth. I just couldn't picture Nat Cole stopping off for a frozen custard in Cicero.

Song: "30 Days In the Hole"
Artist: Humble Pie
Comment: The Chicago reference in this song is a very cool one. Here are the first lines of this chronicle of addictive behavior that lands the singer in jail:

"Chicago green, talkin' 'bout Black Lebanese,
A dirty room and a silver coke spoon
Give me my release, come on . . . "

To be honest, even though I don't consider myself an expert on drugs, I thought I had heard most of the slang. But "Chicago green?" I had to search extensively before I found out that this was 70's code for pot.

Consider me even more impressed by Chicago's long association with illicit substances of all kinds. To have a kind of pot named for your city is another sign of big-league status. And to have it show up in a song is even cooler.




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Posted on February 26, 2006


MUSIC - The Weekend In Chicago Rock.
TV - Cricket vs. Brexit.
POLITICS - Charter Schools Complicit With Segregation.
SPORTS - USA Gymnastics Bans Illinois Coach.

BOOKS - The Randomness Of Harvard Admissions.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Public Lands Matter.


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