Archive for 2006

Lament for a landmark, tragically lost to misguided preservationism

27 October 2006
Categories: Chicago

This week another devastating fire cost Chicago an important piece of its legacy. The Wirt Dexter Building, built in 1887, stood at 630 S. Wabash until Tuesday, 24 October 2006. A modest six-story commercial block, it was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan—making it the second Adler & Sullivan structure to be lost in 2006, after the Pilgrim Baptist Church in January.

When the city put the Dexter Building on the Chicago Landmarks list ten years ago, it was unequivocal about the Dexter’s significance:

[T]his building represents an irreplaceable link in the chain of work of one of the nation’s most important architectural partnerships, that of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. The building’s unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building, and the use of a cast-iron structural system permits larger window openings than would have been possible through the use of masonry alone. The distinctive, perforated, cast-iron beams on the rear facade, for example, anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later. (Chicago Landmarks page, emphasis added)

And now it’s gone, destroyed in a fire carelessly started by workers using acetylene torches to cut up an old boiler in the basement. That both fires were caused by contractor fuck-ups is deplorable. The reason why they were doing this work only makes the story all the more tragic.

The Dexter’s owner, 76-year-old Lorraine Phillips, saw the building as “her retirement.” She was “widely known in preservationist circles” (Chicago Tribune, 10/26/06) for her repeated pleas for funding to restore the well-worn building to its former glory. Failing this, she was in the process of selling the boiler for scrap to generate a little cash flow.

Phillips was seriously misguided when it came to the Dexter, because her two goals for it—restoration and retirement fund—were mutually exclusive.

First and foremost, an old landmark structure like this is unlikely ever to be a money-maker. If Phillips had truly wanted to retire on it, her best bet would have been to sell it for a chunk of cash and re-invest that in something with a steady income—like a mutual fund, not a landmark.

Second, it’s clear that her vision for the restoration was both prosaic and out of touch. To quote from that same Trib article:

She had long dreamed of restoring the building and George Diamond’s Steakhouse, once a classic upscale Chicago restaurant and celebrity rendezvous.

When it opened in the 1950s, George Diamond’s trademark was its flaming red carpet and velvet paintings in a dining room that seated 600.

Under her tenure, the restaurant was closed, then briefly opened again in 2000 before closing without recapturing its former grandeur.

Her nostalgia for a joint that had its heyday around the time the Rat Pack was still a fivesome completely clouded her judgment of what was right for this particular building in this day and age. The South Loop has been booming lately, and she should have handed the Dexter off to a developer who could have put in condominium loft apartments above a retail space to house, say, a hip new restaurant without a trace of painted velvet in sight. Or perhaps she could have sold it to nearby Columbia College, which could have put it to good use.

Instead, Lorraine Phillips had it all wrong. Holding title to a landmark structure like the Dexter is not ownership—it’s stewardship. Everything done to it must be in the building’s best interest, not the owner’s—because its historic value is something all Chicagoans share. Now this legacy of one of Chicago’s greatest architectural duos, Adler & Sullivan, is gone forever, and it’s a loss the city can ill afford. Once the home of so many of their works—the Stock Exchange, the Victoria Building, the Garrick Theater, among others—the list of Chicago’s major surviving Adler & Sullivan designs can now be counted on one hand.

Meanwhile, where is city hall when it comes to performing its watchdog duties? How are these often unlicensed, uninsured, and/or ill-trained workers allowed to ply their questionable trade within the Chicago city limits? The answer seems to be that the city chooses to fatten its coffers with property taxes and hand out TIF zones to its most-favoured aldermen, rather than strive to safeguard its own architectural heritage, the inheritance of the people of Chicago.

A final irony: I heard on the radio that this year the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Louis H. Sullivan’s birth. If so, this is the first I’d heard of it, and the city seems as effectual at promoting this commemoration as it is at protecting its priceless landmarks.


First comment

17 October 2006
Categories: Self-referential

In other news, my first weblog comment has appeared, in reference to my Sloucho post, and it’s an odd one:

Name: Trademark Answers » A paean to public access | URI: | IP: | Date: 13 October 2006

[…] Original post by Spontaneous Publicity […]

The link points back to another weblog, titled “Trademark Answers,” where the first few paragraphs of my post (or at least yesterday’s edit of it) are reprinted (poorly, losing paragraph breaks) along with a link to it. Seems like the whole thing is some kind of spamming autobot—no comments, no added content, nothing. I think maybe it got picked up because it includes the phrase “copyright issues.” How fucking ironic that this (intellectual property theft or breach of weblog etiquette?) occurred on a site about… copyright infringement!

Ian Anderson at Park West

16 October 2006
Categories: Music appreciation

What a wonderful show. It was so fabulous that I was unable to compile a set list. That’s saying something: ordinarily my left brain has room—while my right brain groks the music—to memorize the list, using mnemonic devices that attach a song title or verse to the song’s number in the order.

Yet all I could do at Ian’s show (Friday, 13 October 2006 at the Park West Theatre in Chicago) was watch and listen and smile until my face hurt. So many of my favourite songs, of course, and played by an extremely talented group… but moreover the music had such a depth of complexity that I found myself befuddled with amazement.

For instance, I’d always known about the influence traditional English folk music had on Jethro Tull’s music—I mean, it’s fundamental—but this was the first time I’d noticed how much jazz played a role. Combine that with an ensemble numbering nineteen (including Ian), and some brilliant arrangements, and you have one excellent show.

Ian’s voice, well… he was just getting over a cold, and of course he’s been singing for quite a while, and the result was on-key but thin… lovely yet wispy, almost ethereal. The good news is that the sound mix was geared for it, so when the band rocked out it still didn’t totally wash out the lyrics.

Backing him was a quality rock combo (guitar/keys/bass/drums), but then also a chamber orchestra of around ten strings plus a handful of winds—including the first bass clarinet I’ve seen in years. They were all from the Boston Conservatory of Music, and Ian swore that the fact that all but one were women was merely the result of the applicant pool.

To be honest, though, the star of the show was the solo violinist, Ann Marie Calhoun. Not only is she disastrously, wars-are-fought-over-less beautiful, but she is an exceptionally talented violinist. She’s also a virtuosa bluegrass fiddler, and introduced a traditional bluegrass tune by saying that before she ever met Ian she had seen a picture of him on an old Tull album sporting his beard “like clouds” I think she put it, and she said she knew right then that Ian had “a little mountain man inside him.”

Anyway, she had consummate stage presence, fearsome violin licks, and, well, to be crass, a killer bod. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as the waves of sound washed over me, smiling with glee the whole time.

Apparently, having at least as much fun as me, was the orchestra. These kids were having the time of their lives. Years of practice and performance in stodgy orchestral concerts had not prepared them for a thousand adoring Jethro Tull fans cheering and swooning and giving multiple standing ovations. Ian mentioned that they had been getting used to life on the tour bus—“a little too used to it,” he said. Whether that’s true or just a wry joke, they certainly were still awestruck at being on tour. At Park West the route from the green room to the stage is a twisted path that passes through a public hallway, so security cordons it off during performer transitions. One of the musicians was overheard to remark how cool it was to have security staff holding back the people for them. It must have been a genuine rock star moment for them—a far cry from a black-suited string quartet.

A paean to public access

13 October 2006

Once upon a time, circa 1990, back when I was in college and living in the student ghetto, there was one television show we watched with unerring regularity. Oddly enough, it was on the public access channel of the East Lansing, Michigan, cable system—WELM—which was your ordinary public access station. During the week it carried the usual community-service stuff: religious programming, homebrew sports talk, and the like. But one show stood out.

As an aside, there was one other point of interest on WELM in those days: Eat at Joe’s, hosted by local impresario Joseph Szilvagyi and featuring, among other things, local musical talent. East Lansing’s own Verve Pipe and Wally Pleasant appeared, and, believe it or not, Smashing Pumpkins. I never watched this show enough before Joey pulled up stakes and left E.L.

The real subject of this tale was our television bread and butter: Sloucho’s Cartoon Control Room.

sloucho.jpgSloucho Barx was a guy (though I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out he was Tim Arnold, co-owner of Pinball Pete’s) wearing an ill-fitting, damaged and distorted whole-head rubber mask. I always remembered it as a Groucho Marx mask, but this screen capture makes me think of Frank Zappa. Each week Sloucho would point a couple of cameras at himself sitting in the control room of the cable company’s headend studio. Piled around him would be a portion of his massive library of videos—all cartoons. For six hours he would play cartoon after cartoon, classics from the Warner Bros., MGM, and Disney studios, old chestnuts rarely seen in years, interspersed with his introductions and commentaries—often to fill time while he tracked down and cued up the next tape. He’d record the whole show to a single VHS tape.

Then WELM played it, all weekend long. I figure the last person out the door on Friday night would fire up the playback on an auto-rewind loop, and for the next two days, while no one was working at the headend, WELM would broadcast six hours of Sloucho, followed by a few minutes of blue screen as the tape rewound.

It was perfect for the college-age demographic. Any hour of the day or night, drunk sober or otherwise, it was always a safe haven: no commercials, no (realistic) violence, just funny stuff. He usually didn’t play the “big guns”—What’s Opera, Doc? or Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century—perhaps due to copyright issues. Instead he delved into much more obscure fare.

Sloucho’s trademark, aside from the mask and the repartee, was that every week he would show one cartoon in particular: Warner’s 1932 epic Freddy the Freshman. freddy.jpgOkay, “epic” is a joke… it was an early Merrie Melodies two-parter, starting with a musical interlude at a college party, where Freddy arrives in his jalopy to sing his theme song, followed by a football game featuring all sorts of silly sight gags. It was goofy, and more than a little rudimentary. A few weeks ago on an Adult Swim rerun of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, they showed the first half of the cartoon, and although I had my nose in a book I immediately recognised the lead-in instrumental and was shocked to realise that I remembered all the lyrics:

Who’s got all the girlies chasing him around?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!
Who wrecks all the parties, turns them upside-down?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!
He plays the ukulele, he plays the saxophone,
And the pretty babies just won’t leave him alone!
Who got bounced at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Brown?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!

Sloucho also clued me in on some very interesting, but little-known cartoons. To this day, one of my all-time favourites is The Dover Boys, from 1940. This was a Chuck Jones experiment in animation “shorthand,” using blurred streaks of colour to denote rapid movement without drawing detailed parts in every cel. Surely it’s familiar to us now, having seen it used so many times for the Road Runner’s legs, but this was where Jones first gave it a try on a large scale. In The Dover Boys the effect is surreal, almost trippy. Plus this cartoon has a great line that I often find myself quoting for no real reason, when the villain Dan Backslide announces in an over-the-top stage whisper surely audible to all around, “A runabout! I’ll steal it—no one will ever know!”

Like all good things, Sloucho’s Cartoon Control Room had to come to an end. And what a strange and ignominious end it was.

One week, Sloucho put together a show with a single theme: culturally insensitive cartoons. Among his collection he had scads of cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s—mainstream Warner and MGM stuff, not backalley indies—containing jokes that were considered acceptable then, but not now; in those days, blackface gags, ethnic slurs, and the like were commonplace. Nowadays, if shown on television at all, the questionable parts are trimmed out, sometimes right in the middle of a setup, or just in time to skip over the punchline. But Sloucho had the originals, uncut, warts and ugly sentiments intact.

He presented the show as something like a sociological documentary. Between every cartoon he’d come on and explain what the show was about: that in the golden era of studio animation, not all was purity and light and a “left turn at Albuquerque,” that prejudices and racism existed even on the screens of the Saturday matinee. He’d disclaim what was about to air and warn that kids and impressionable minds probably shouldn’t be watching, and after the cartoon was over he’d register his disapproval at what we’d seen.

rooster.jpgEven Freddy the Freshman made it onto this show, thanks to a scene you won’t see on the Cartoon Network: a brief cutaway during the football game to three magpies sitting on a fence chanting “Oy! Oy! Oy!” while waving Hebrew-lettered pennants, who are then interrupted by an extremely effeminate and flamboyant rooster giving his own limp-wristed cheer.

I found this show fascinating, a real eye-opener. It was amazing to see how much cultural values had changed in the brief half-century since these shorts were created. And I felt that Sloucho did an exemplary job of putting them into the proper context, to come right out and repeatedly say, “These views are not acceptable. Period.”

But of course, it caused a furor, and parents wrote in to WELM to complain. (I had two thoughts on that, first that they weren’t doing an adequate job of supervising their kids’ television viewing, and second that they missed an opportunity to open a dialogue with their kids about this subject.) The next weekend, and those following, saw nothing but automated schedule pages. Sloucho was permanently off the air. Tim Arnold hung up the mask, and shortly afterward sold his share of Pinball Pete’s and moved to Las Vegas, where he now runs the non-profit Pinball Hall of Fame.

Never meet your heroes

10 October 2006
Categories: Music appreciation

My friend (and WXRT morning man) Lin Brehmer put out a terrific/funny/astute “Lin’s Bin” this past week, about how one should never go backstage to meet one’s rock star idols. He’s so right, and not just because it’s apparent from his description of backstage itself (“backstage is a boiler room with bad furniture… backstage is the devil’s rummage sale”) that he’s had plenty of opportunity to visit the basement of the Riviera Theatre.

All too often, the chance to meet your favourite rock star will only end in disappointment. My brief meet-and-greet with the gentlemen of Hot Tuna a few years ago is a good example. I wanted to tell Jorma and Jack how godlike I think they are, how they were the musical core around which was built one of the greatest rock bands ever (the Jefferson Airplane), how their music forms so much of the soundtrack to my life. Awestruck, what I managed to blurt out was, “hi, uh, I’m a big fan.”

That’s just if you’re lucky enough to have them actually listening. Most of the time, they’re in the midst of a long tour, distracted, exhausted, moments after pouring it out on stage, and who’s to blame them if they’re barely listening to yet another fan telling them how awesome they are, how “I have all your albums.” And that’s just the nice ones. Truth be told, many of my musical idols are people I intend never to meet, because no matter how much I like their music, on a personal level I have a sense that they’re assholes.

And yet—that’s not always the case.

A couple of years ago Randy Newman came to the Park West for a solo show. It was an excellent performance, two full sets totalling some 32 songs that ranged over his entire career.

I remember hearing “Short People” on the radio as a kid, and when I was in high school his video for “I Love L.A.” got heavy rotation on MTV—but it wasn’t until college that I really started listening to his music, and found a masterful songwriting ability combined with a scathing satirical wit. By now, yes, I have (almost) all his albums… so when I thought maybe I’d have a chance to get his autograph on one or two of the covers, it took some thought to decide which ones. Ultimately, Sail Away and Little Criminals made the cut.

Anyway, after the show I was hanging around the manager’s office, hoping to hand my CDs off to the production manager, when Randy’s tour manager came in and, after a brief conversation, offered to have me meet the man myself. I was hesitant—knowing how these things can go. Plus, I had led myself to believe that in person he’s something of a curmudgeon.

How wrong I could be.

Randy Newman was friendly, and cheerful, and put me at ease while I tried overly hard to be deferential. As he signed my CDs, we got to talking about music, of course. I think maybe the kicker for him was when he asked if I played any instruments and, after the obligatory and self-deprecating mention of sloppy guitar, I said I’d played mellophone in the Spartan Marching Band. His eyes lit up, and suddenly mellophones and marching bands were the subject of choice.

In fact, in the midst of the discussion a couple of VIPs came in, possibly music industry types or the like, escorted by the tour manager for the standard meet-and-greet. I got up to leave, but Randy waved me back to my seat. After a very short back-and-forth with the VIPs, lasting no more than a minute or two, Randy turned back to me and picked up our conversation right where we’d left off.

In all, I was there for around ten minutes—but it’s a memory I’ll keep forever.

Funny thing is, a friend of mine also met Randy that night. This friend is highly intelligent, has the gift of gab, and probably has ten years head start on me in terms of being a fan of Randy Newman. Yet their conversation was brief, perfunctory, and unmemorable. I suppose the fact that my friend could be considered a “music industry type” might have had something to do with it.

Or, perhaps, it’s because he never played the mellophone.