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Chicago In Song: The O'Hare Blues

In this edition of Chicago In Song, we have no trouble finding songwriters who say they'd rather be somewhere else but are stuck here, more or less against their will. Some cope by getting drunk and eating donuts while in Lakeview, others by complaining about O'Hare. Some even take midnight swims in el lago.

Anything, I guess, that helps you work out the scars you inevitably get from your Chicago experience.

Chely Wright/One Night In Las Vegas
Songs about how cold Chicago is are a dime-a-dozen. They're all over the place - you'd think it was the Yukon. C'mon, it's not so bad. You could be from Minnesota, like me. Then you'd know what cold really is. So really, the "cold" stuff doesn't impress me too much - I always have to break out an ironic smile when I hear the endless complaints about that "cold Chicago wind," or those "cold and gray Chicago 'morns."

However, when these "Chicago complaint" songs are about flying to or through Chicago, boy, do those seem real. While I've never given the city many props for being cold, I will forever doff my hat to its ultimate supremacy in the field of crappy airline experiences. That's the world tapped for emotional baggage by Chely Wright on this song, from her 2001 album Never Love You Enough, written for her by "new traditional" country star Brad Paisley.

Right off, I have to say I'm not a fan of Chely's kind of bland Nashville pablum. It's squarely in that same cookie-cutter mold as 'pert near everything you can hear 24/7 on US 99.5. Like it all came out of the same corporate boardroom. Anyway, all that aside, "One Night In Las Vegas'" best feature is that with a few words it really nails the O'Hare experience, mainly because it captures the uniquely awful details.

airport.jpgOverall, it's kind of a sappy, sentimental lament about the stress of modern life taking a big toll on the struggling love lives of the singer and her man. Not only are they hassled at the airport, but they deal with family tragedies, endure personality conflicts and, worst of all, have to deal with a separation when he gets transferred to Denver. (What, did he screw up at work?) But at the end of the day, all they need is just a few stolen moments together in Vegas, or "the mountains," which are so, so sweet that, though few, they make up for all the Chicago nastiness.

Flight 709 pulled up to the gate
An hour and 45 minutes late
And of course our connection was already in the air
Spent a day of our vacation in Chicago O'Hare

Like I said, this is so accurate because not only does it lament the ubiquity of delays at O'Hare, it notes that the 105-minute delay caused them to miss their connection at the worst possible time . . . which is when you're on your own vacation. So friggin' true. That always seems to happen, making O'Hare an especially appalling place. Why not when you're going somewhere you really don't want to be, like say, the Scranton office? No, always smooth as glass then.

But how accurate is the 105-minute delay assertion? Well, funny you should ask, because the according to the city of Chicago, which just got its hands on a cool $1.29 billion in passenger fees to conduct the biggest airport expansion in the history of the known universe, the average delay at O'Hare is 22 minutes. And, thanks to that billion dollars in passenger shakedowns, the city says the result will be to reduce that wait to a mere a 16 minutes. That works out to about, oh, $208 million per minute. So yes, while I feel Chely's pain, on average, she's taking some artistic license with the delays.

But that's not all. Not only has their vacation been screwed up, it's gotten worse:

And like musical chairs at the baggage belt
We were the last ones standin' there when nothin' came out
Looking back now on our string of bad luck
That just wasn't our day but you know what?

That one night in Las Vegas
Lyin' there with you
Was well worth everything that you and I went through

Ah, the whole lost baggage thing. Again, so true, and always at the worst time. I couldn't find anything specifically about how often luggage is mishandled at O'Hare, but the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that in July, airlines across the country reported 7.9 lost baggage incidents for every 1,000 passengers, up substantially from the 6.5 of last summer. I'm pretty sure that number for vacationers and pining lovers alone is about 465.5 per 1,000. O'Hare is not good for those folks.

Telegraph/Carry On
Telegraph was a '90s ska/power pop band from Detroit that put out some records on Chicago's Jump Up label. They supposedly had a great live reputation, and were formerly known as the Skolars. I was able to find a few of their promotional MP3s, and can say that from listening to them, they seemed extra bouncy. Their website no longer exists, and it seems their last record came out in 2000.

This song, "Carry On," was on their 1998 LP Quit Your Band, and I think shows the boys got to know the broke-and-hurtin' side of slinging a guitar in the mid-'90s Windy City. As I seem to recall from mixing with those who were there living it, there was much time spent drinking and riding the El to the Belmont station, where you would lurch down the stairs with your friends to try to find Ann Sather's. For some reason you wanted Swedish meatballs and coffee. Except that they closed hours ago.

Mmmm, meatballs. Oh! Uh, sorry. Yes, I think Telegraph might have skanked their way through this kind of thing, perhaps when they were in town to cut records at Jump Up with DJ Chuck Wren - who, by the way, is still spinning up the ska sounds regularly at Delilah's.

Bent shyly, hundreds of miles away
My bed is warm it waits for me
Lost in Chicago, no money in my pocket
And the rain on my face.

And carry on, they say to me.
And carry on, they saaayyyyyy

Again, as we've seen time and again here at Chicago In Song, the city is portrayed as the bad place you'd rather not be, but have to be, probably for some reason that has to do with working. Or going to jail. That's a big one, too. But it does have its perks, like, as I mentioned earlier, Belmont Avenue. It's just a cool place to be if you're young, talented and alcoholic. Don't know why, for sure, but Telegraph confirms it:

Drunk on Belmont, she laughs at something
In a doughnut shop, well I like her smile, yeah
Coffee sounds good, but that kiss has me
Changing my mind.

The Dunkin' Donuts at Belmont & Clark? Very well could be, I'm thinking. It's got its share of drunks, that is for sure. Is it someplace where you'd make out over coffee, under harsh fluorescent light at 3 a.m.? Probably depends on the number of Lakeview bars stopped at beforehand.

Damn! I wish Ann Sather's was open.

The Nadas/California
In this song, the Nadas, the Des Moines-based rootsy college rock outfit, use Chicago to represent a life left behind, yet still wistfully wished-for and, perhaps, one that can be returned to with just a little determination.

lake_michigan.jpgSongwriters Jason Walsmith and Mike Butterworth included "California" as the final track on the Nadas' 2003 album, Coming Home. Its placement there probably is meant to sum up the album's title theme, since it name-checks several places that could be, once were, or perhaps should be "home." In that way, it somewhat stereotypically associates California and Chicago with the elements they're best known for - sun and water, respectively.

How's the sun in California?
It's warm out there with you
I can feel me pullin' toward ya
I hope to see you real soon

How are things there in Chicago?
I'll be there in a week or two
To see your place down by
el lago
Midnight swimming here with you

Cause I miss you
I miss you

"California," like many songs before it, uses Chicago as a kind of metaphor for things left behind, which is what I think the middle of the country has become for several generations of Americans. While the period between World War I and the 1970's saw a great wave of migration into the Midwest, the years since have seen the opposite: millions of people leaving the Midwest for places like, well, California. And the Southwest, the Southeast, pretty much anyplace it doesn't snow (and maybe where there's jobs). My feeling is that this phenomenon has turned the region - and by extension, Chicago - into a one huge, misty-eyed, Norman Rockwellian, fuzzy-memoried nostalgia receptacle. You always remember cold places more fondly once you've got an overpriced bungalow and a gig at the defense plant in Orange County. Yeah. Now that's the life.

Just as the Nadas' California reference is about the sun, their Chicago lyric is specifically about Lake Michigan, or, as they call it, "el lago," which, while it was probably written that way because it conveniently rhymes with "Chicago," also is the first Spanish-language rock song lyric about the city that I have come across. It kind of makes you realize the subordinate position Chicago's burgeoning Hispanic culture has in the nation's consciousness compared to the city's Black heritage. It probably won't stay that way forever, though, because while everyone else has been moving out of here since the '70s, Hispanic immigrants are the ones who are putting down new roots in the city.

Maybe this century's most famous lyric about the city will be something like, Dulce hogar, Chicago.


For more, see the Chicago In Song collection.


Posted on October 1, 2007

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