Archive for October 2006

“The Girl in the Fireplace”

31 October 2006

Most certainly the best Doctor Who episode I have ever seen. Just a grand story, starting with the obligatory elements of time travel and evil killer robots, then adding lots of subtext—Rose showing a kind of stoic suffering for loving the Doctor—and of course, a truly gorgeous and talented actress (Sophia Myles) as the Doctor’s love interest. Damn thing made me cry.

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.


Random Rules #1

27 October 2006
Categories: Music appreciation

The Onion AV Club has a feature called “Random Rules” where the club “asks some of its favorite people to set their MP3 players to shuffle and comment on the first few tracks that come up—no cheating or skipping embarrassing tracks allowed.” Sounds like fun fodder for a music–related babble.

“Eastern Jam”—Country Joe & The Fish

A psychedelic instrumental off of I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die that I was reminded of thanks to a decent documentary that VH1 has been rerunning like clockwork called The Drug Years. The show is rife with interesting, often obscure tracks, and the first two episodes are mainly psychedelia, apropos considering the subject matter. An excerpt of this track is also acting as my ringtone right now.

“Everybody Wants You”—Billy Squier

A classic rocker from Emotions In Motion, the second of one of the greatest back-to-back efforts ever (Don’t Say No being the first). It’s too bad that the pink satin sheets video debacle a few years later not only derailed his career, but also tends to colour all his good stuff… take for example the high falsetto he hits when singing “you never realize what you do to yourself,” a line which might now be viewed as prescient.

“The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”—Traffic

A jazzy slow-burner. I discovered as a college freshman that this album as a whole is an excellent choice for putting on repeat play for a long, pleasurable afternoon of lovemaking.

“Hello, It’s Me”—Todd Rundgren

Part of a Todd Rundgren – Meat Loaf – Jim Steinman axis I’ve been into lately. (Supposedly this song is a tribute to Carole King, which is totally on-topic… but I’m looking for a disgression here.)

Todd Rundgren produced the seminal 1978 work Bat Out Of Hell, and also played lead guitar and a number of other instruments on it. This album, which holds a distinct position within my all-time Top 10 Desert Island albums list and also happens to be the first CD I ever bought, has the odd creditation of being a Meat Loaf album, with—in much smaller print—“Songs by Jim Steinman.”

This is a weird thing, something I believe was a marketing decision by the record label. Meat and Jim were a duo, and this album is the finest example of their collaboration—Jim writing the songs and pounding the keys, Meat singing in his inimitable bombastic style and, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in his review, “find[ing] the emotional core in each song, bringing true heartbreak to ‘Two out of Three Ain’t Bad’ and sly humor to ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light.'” But someone must have decided that an offbeat stage name like “Meat Loaf” would sell better without sharing top billing, and Steinman was relegated to the bottom tier.

This unequal billing must have contributed to their long estrangement. As Newsweek noted in a 2006 article, Bat Out Of Hell was followed by “a series of bitter disputes about how to divvy up profits and credit among collaborators.”

The pair started on a follow-up at the record company’s behest, but Meat’s voice was shot and Jim finished the record with himself at the mic, and released it as his first (and so far only) solo album, Bad For Good. A year later another Meat Loaf album was released, Dead Ringer, which some purists consider to be “the real Bat Out Of Hell II.” For a long time it was unavailable on CD in the States, but this is a solid record, highlighted by a duet track with Cher giving her all in the Ellen Foley role. But whether it’s from abuse or the recording or a little of both, Meat’s voice sounds a bit thin. This time, the “Songs by Jim Steinman” credit is nowhere to be found on the cover, and is stashed in the liner notes.

That may have been the clearest symptom of their falling out, because Dead Ringer was Meat and Jim’s last collaboration until 1993, when they put out the record with the commercially pandering title Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Crass title choice aside, it’s really a fun record, full of the old, grandiose fire. I’m particular to the track “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” which despite a title that’s a silly twist on a common modern-day cliché is really about how one’s own past can take on significance in the mind far beyond what it deserves.

More animosity may have come between Jim and Meat Loaf (even though at least Steinman’s name made the cover of the 1993 album), because thirteen years later Meat Loaf is releasing yet another album that resurrects the Bat Out Of Hell moniker: Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose, due out on Halloween 2006. Yet Jim Steinman was not involved with the production. In fact, he even tried to stop the use of the title through a lawsuit, but has since settled. Of the album’s fourteen tracks, only seven are penned by Steinman—and those appear to be rehashes, including one previously recorded by Celine Dion and another, “Bad For Good,” that was the title track for Steinman’s solo album back in 1981. It remains to be seen whether Meat Loaf’s voice has anything left to give. However, before even hearing the record the purist in me is disappointed that it’s a Bat Out Of Hell album in name only.

Unfortunately, most of the press I’ve seen is unimaginative enough to want to call part III the third of “the Bat Out Of Hell trilogy,” which implies a three-part whole. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Monster Is Loose is just a sequel to a sequel… or, as Steinman himself put it when disdaining the re-use of the title: “one-hit wonder.”

Off on one more tangent here, and one which comes back around to tie off this little set of songs.

After Dead Ringer, during the long falling-out period with Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman wrote a couple of epic melodies for Bonnie Tyler’s Faster Than The Speed Of Night—both of them typical Steinmanesque power ballads filled with over-the-top orchestrations, wild swings in tempo and volume, and grandiose lyrics. (By the way, I’ve always loved “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and the discovery that it’s a Steinman composition was a moment of simultaneously being surprised and saying “oh, that makes sense.”)

Otherwise, Steinman kept busy as a producer and arranger. One of the albums he produced was Billy Squier’s Signs Of Life album—on which appears “Rock Me Tonite,” of the aforementioned pink sheets infamy.

“Tend My Garden”—James Gang

A great little Joe Walsh-penned woo-pitch that long ago I included on a mix tape for a new girlfriend early in our ultimately ill-fated courtship. That’s not really my primary connotation with this song—rather it makes me think of my first home ownership (“I’m home grown, growin’ my own”)—but some thirteen-plus years later I’d love to see that long-lost set list just to see what else I thought pertinent at the time.

And the winner is– whack!

23 October 2006
Categories: Rants

Missed the Chicago Marathon yesterday. Only knew one person running in it, and the weather forecast was crappy (although aside from a stiff western breeze the reality wasn’t awful), and frankly, had other things to do.

But I caught the report on the news, showing the film clip as the first man to finish, Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, raised his arms to signify victory as he reached the tape—and promptly fell backwards to the ground, striking his head resoundingly on the pavement and warranting a trip to the hospital to check for intracranial bleeding, never a good thing.

“He just slipped,” the Sun-Times quoted a race official as saying. Another said he was exhausted and collapsed.

Or perhaps not. What I noticed in the brief clip—and what only the Tribune‘s Eric Zorn sees fit to mention—is that across the pavement at the finish line were placed several vinyl decals with the logo of the Chicago Marathon and its chief sponsor, which shall go unnamed here. His footing was firm right until the moment he stepped on the decals, and given the damp conditions it would be no surprise if those decals were as slick as a slip-n-slide.

Regardless of what they might be saying in public, race officials appear to agree—within moments of Cheruiyot’s fall they were pulling up the decals, before another 35,000 runners had the chance to turn a moment of personal victory into a “brain bruise.” (Ouch! That phrase hurts just typing it.)

And I’m not advocating it, given the nature of our litigious society, but I will not be surprised if a lawsuit comes out of this.


A follow-up… race officials are claiming the decals are “made of non-skid, non-slip material and… designed specifically for outdoor sports in all-weather conditions,” according to a race spokesman quoted in the Trib. Perhaps—I remain skeptical.

But it’s all moot: “All runners… are required to sign a liability waiver as part of the registration process.” Score one for legalistic CYA, zero for the bruised noggin. Hope the $125,000 purse he won covers his medical costs.

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!