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Chicago In Song: Cubs 'N Roses

In this edition of Chicago In Song, Sinatra's depiction of the city as a sophisticated land of martini-swillers is co-opted by a bluegrass hillbilly; Izzy Stradlin feels safer on the streets of the Windy City than on stage with Guns 'N' Roses; and a Mountain Goat (not a billy goat) curses the Cubs in the lyrics of popular song.

If Frank Had Been a Cowboy/Bob Colladay
One of the things that most amused me about the alt-country music hotbed in Chicago was its sheer unlikeliness. I just found it so fun that the Home of the Blues was a big enough place to also be the Home of Wilco. It taught me something about the bigness of Chicago and the meaninglessness of civic stereotypes - if it's out there in the country, it's in Chicago as well. But in the eyes of the rest of the nation, the city means the exact opposite of country music, alternative or otherwise. In that standard line of thinking, nothing, it seems, could be further from Bill Monroe than Monroe Street.

bob_colladay2.jpgWhich brings us to our first song, a witty number from bluegrass artist Bob Colladay. Bob is a singer, acoustic bass player and guitar picker with an outfit called the Gazaway Mountain Boys out of Reno County, Kansas. Judging from videos of the group posted on the Internet, they mostly play traditional bluegrass in and around Hutchinson, Kansas, alternating their own compositions with such Johnny Cash standards as "Jackson" and "I Still Miss Someone," which Bob performs on stage with wife Tammy Colladay, much like the Man In Black did with June Carter.

But Bob also has a strange affair going on with the ukulele, the instrument he says he loves the most - so much, in fact, that he has invented a "band" that basically seems to be him multi-tracking himself on the uke. He calls it Bobulele. It was in the guise of Bobulele that Colladay penned this amusing take on the man he identifies on his MySpace page as the person he'd most like to meet - Sinatra. It's pretty obvious Bob admires Frank's style, which to him is personified by an early '60s notion of Chicago and Las Vegas. The implication is that the Chicago of Frank and Dino epitomized the kind of martini-swilling, tough-guy savior faire that the rest of the country could only imagine and envy.

But being a bluegrass diehard, in the song, he also wishes Frank were from Texas.

If Frank had been a cowboy
He would have been the king
Sinatra swingin' Texas with a
Little ring-a-ding
He'd have a horse named Dino
And spurs that jingle-jang
He'd still be crooning "My Way"
With just a little twang

Oh, can't you hear him play the Opry
And sing those swingin' hits
He'd be the king of all that sways
While putting on the ritz
He'd sing about Chicago
But he'd be in San Antone
If Frank had been a cowboy
That's where he'd get to roam

Now Frank was quite a singer
And a full-fledged swinger too
If he'd only lived in Texas
He'd been a buck-a-roo
He'd trade casinos for honky tonks
And the Vegas strip for fairs
Yeah, Frank would get 'em swingin'
As they all two-stepped in pairs

Colladay says he recorded the song with a tenor ukulele, a banjo ukulele, and a harmonica. It's a simple, simple number in which he uses a kind of shaky falsetto, but that just heightens its effect because of the total disconnect it produces when it invokes the class of Sinatra. But the thing of it is, Chicago's much more hick than the rest of the country believes thanks to the Rat Pack. In the shadows of the condo towers are windswept lonesome streets full of hillbilly country pickers: Posted right on Bobulele's MySpace page is an ad for the inaugural Chicagoland Ukulele Jam Festival, which is happening Saturday, June 23, at the Legal Grounds Coffee House in Maywood.

Hey, songwriters: We don't have much ring-a-ding left at all anymore, despite the Playboy empire and the ancient Dino vibe. The Outfit got out of swank clubs and into video poker long ago. A more accurate Chicago reference nowadays would be something about beating the spread on the Michigan-Notre Dame game.

Yeah, it's not the same.

Cuttin' the Rug/Izzy Stradlin
Izzy Stradlin left Guns N' Roses in 1991 - the peak of their infamy - after their rock 'n' roll lifestyle proved a bit too much for him. The incident in which he relieved himself in an airplane's galley (the can must have said occupado) put a serio-comic exclamation point on his time with Axl & the boys, and shortly thereafter he sobered up, headed back home to Indiana and proceeded to make a bunch of solo hard-rock records that didn't really attract too much attention.

izzy.jpgWas that because they weren't GNR or because they just weren't that good? Despite the critical praise his early ones got, I'd say a little of both. It's in style now, I think, to play up his importance to GNR as "the quiet one," sort of like their very own George Harrison. But while his die-hard fans say his early solo work, like "Cuttin' the Rug" from Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds, is evidence of that greatness, to me it seems more of a confirmation that GNR was a one-off oddity that was greater than its parts, and Izzy was lucky to be tagging along on the Slash 'n' Axl express. Rather than revealing him as the spiritual equal of his hero Keith Richards as some claim, the well-executed but by-the-numbers blues rock on his first solo album (in 1992) to me exposes his limits as a songwriter and shows just how far an uber-talented frontman like Axl Rose can take mediocre material.

He does resemble Keith Richards in one important way, however - he can't sing. And unlike Keef, he can't play lead guitar either, which is always the saving grace when Glimmer Twin No. 2 does a solo number. On Ju Ju Hounds, pretty much all of the interest comes from the excellent sidemen Stradlin and Geffen Records had assembled, especially Georgia Satellites lead guitarist Rick (not Keith) Richards - who absolutely makes this record - and Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, who does some tasty bits on the Hammond B3. The album spawned a couple of tracks that gained significant airtime on classic rock stations that just couldn't let the GNR cash train go. But the fact that Geffen dropped Stradlin a couple years later, I think, says a lot about his potential as a solo act. Technically, his stuff is fine if you like this kind of red meat rock. But for the life of me I can't find any evidence here of what's supposed to be the "soul" of GNR. It seems like he's having fun, but so what?

The other Izzy weakness that was easily overlooked with GNR was his rudimentary lyrical skills - obviously not a crucial skill in hard rock, but still, you can't just go out there and scream nonsense for 90 minutes. "Cuttin' the Rug," for instance, doesn't make a whole lot of sense lyrically. But from what I can tell, it's not so much about dancing as (I think) about how it felt for him to be in the middle of the GNR parade of grotesqueries. In the song he references a "riot so big," which I can only assume means the huge disturbance the band caused in 1991 in St. Louis, which happened after he had left the band. He starts out by talking about watching coverage of a riot on TV, probably while detoxing at home in Lafayette, Ind., and his reaction is to imagine an escape from a GNR venue to a safer place: Chicago. (This is the first and I bet only time I'll ever come across Chicago wistfully portrayed a "safe" place in a song lyric. But I guess as opposed to a GNR concert in 1991, it probably was.)

The TV set's a'lookin' grim,
This time a riot so big
I'm feelin' lucky 'cause I got the wheels
Looks like I'm takin' a trip

Head to Chicago, it's close to home
To get a little relief
Don't really need to carry no gun here
Don't need to be packin' no piece

Funny. You need to pack a piece while hanging with GNR. But not in Chicago. Now that's a riot. Then he switches into the well-worn metaphor of Chicago as a center of excitement and nightlife, a lyrical ploy that started in, oh, 1899 or so:

Take a cab, take a bus
And you could walk if you like
Don't really matter, as long as you go
You're gonna feel it alright
All right, say

And if you wanna stay alone
Sure is plenty goin' on
On every corner

Cuttin' the rug
Cuttin' the rug
Kid can't dance
But he's cuttin' the rug
I can almost dance

Yeah, slammin' and jammin'
And cuttin' the rug again
Cut it up, oh

Like I said, this is a good enough song, especially with Richards (Rick) on guitar. It's catchy in a way, but ultimately served to illustrate the Izzy letdown.

The Mountain Goats/Cubs in Five
Nothing like a song comparing the Cubs' chances of winning to some of the greatest unlikelihoods on Earth to get the Chicago In Song juices a'flowin'. And John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats doesn't disappoint in that respect.

john_darnielle.jpgIt's with pleasure that I found indie lo-fi stalwart and master lyricist Darnielle's take on something Chicago. And better yet: It's about the Cubs. I even found a YouTube video of the Mountain Goats playing "Cubs in Five." It's hard to beat the authentic feel of the Cubs fan here - the resigned knowledge that winning a pennant is about as likely as Mayor Daley losing an election. I've got to say that this one of the more accurate CIS entries so far.

They're gonna find intelligent life up there on the moon
And the
Canterbury Tales will rocket up to the top of the bestseller list
And stay there for 27 weeks

And the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league
And the Tampa Bay Bucs will make it all the way to January

And I will love you again
I will love you, just like I used to
I will love you again
I will love you, just like I used to

The stars are gonna spell out the answers to tomorrow's crosswords
And the Phillips Corporation will admit that they've made an awful mistake
And Bill Gates
Will single-handedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival

And I will love you again
I will love you, just like I used to
I will love you again
I will love you, just like I used to


God, I love it. All I can say about this song is, sometimes this job is worth it.

*

Check out the Chicago In Song collection. Contact Don Jacobson at don@beachwoodreporter.com.



Permalink

Posted on June 4, 2007


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
TV - Cricket vs. Brexit.
POLITICS - Trailer: Swing District.
SPORTS - Ryan Pace's Narratives Are Killing Us.

BOOKS - Chicago For Dummies.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Sears Motor Buggy.


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