Monday, January 31, 2022

Chicago is a fine place and worth saving

     There's a back story to today's headline. I recently read Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which contains my second favorite line from his work: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for." (Second to, from the end of "The Sun Also Rises": "Isn't it pretty to think so?") When I finished today's column, I originally thought to echo that with "Chicago is a fine place and worth the fighting for." But given the grim toll of gangs fighting over turf, I thought I'd better not, and give it the slight twist above.

     One evening a few years ago I was walking in Harajuku, Tokyo’s trendy fashion district, when I noticed a bright neon sign: “CHICAGO.” I went in. There is joy in finding evidence of home when you’re far away, plus a special insider delight in noting what they get wrong, like those palm trees on the sign. Or the fact the store sells used kimonos.
     So when an email from the mayor’s office hit my inbox, announcing the “Chicago Not Chicago” publicity initiative, highlighting Chicago’s global impact, I felt ready to play along. Not to snarkily tick off the many ways the world misinterprets Chicago. But to elaborate on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s theme that “Chicago is truly a trailblazing city of firsts” that pulse out of our beating heartland and animate the world.
     Where to begin? The city is right to stress architecture, one of Chicago’s most obvious global gifts to the world — Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, a parade of greatness right up to Jeanne Gang, who used to be described as a top female architect, and now is just a top architect. When Tom Cruise does his stunts on the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” that’s a designed-in-Chicago building he’s bouncing off of, created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Adrian Smith.
     Next? Let’s pick music. The first composition considered to be jazz by musical scholars is Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues” published in Chicago in 1915; the New Orleans transplant so appreciated the welcome given him by Chicago, which he found not nearly as racist as St. Louis, he renamed the tune “The Chicago Blues.”
     Chicago drew the greats to itself. From Louis Armstrong to Willie Dixon, a house musician at Chess Records, who in one three day stretch played bass on both Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" and Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." (Which is not even. the most significant product called "Maybelline" to come out of our city. That would be the cosmetic Thomas Lyle Williams created after watching his sister Mabel highlight her eyes with a concoction of coal dust and Vaseline during World War I).
     I could fill three columns with ways Chicago music rocked the world. The Rolling Stones are one of many bands sprung root and branch from the Chicago sound. Their name, remember, is based on a lyric from a Muddy Waters song, and they came to Chess in 1964 to record his “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which a year later they reinvented as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
     The mayor mentioned cell phones, debuted in the parking lot of Soldier Field. Don’t forget 
the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction was achieved at the University of Chicago, which also discovered REM sleep while inventing sleep research. Videotape debuted here. And loudspeakers. And shortwave radio.
     The most iconic piece of technology to come out of Chicago has to be Shure’s Unidyne Model 55 microphone, its distinctive look inspired by the grill of a 1937 Oldsmobile, a rare piece of electronics almost unchanged for 80 years. To convey that a person in a picture is singing, and not just standing there with their mouth open, a Model 55 microphone is the go-to prop.

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  1. Don't forget the Chicago City Council, probably the single most corrupt elected group in the country.
    There hasn't been an honest alderman/woman since Paul Douglas left it to become a US Senator, who then saved the Indiana Dunes from being destroyed for steel mills & Indiana hasn't forgiven Illinois for that!

  2. Chicago , my birthplace and still my home. no forest fires, hurricanes, volcanos, or mudslides. Very few earthquakes or tornados . Plenty of water and centrally located. Two daily newspapers and sufficient electricity.

    An easy place to make a living.

    A real tough place to raise children.

  3. Let’s not forget the changing of the flow of the Chicago River. No small feat.
    Thanks for the memories and the credible optimism.

  4. I go through recording gear set ups as technology evolves. Starting a new mic collection which will total precisely one: the SM-57, Shure's masterworkhorse (from the German meisterwerkpferd). Thank you for consistently reminding me of their being here which reminds me of Slingerland drums (o my heart!). I believe their snare drum factory remains on the Western Line at Damen, now condos. P.S. newest phone is a sassy little Motorola Moto G. Our Town!

    1. You have mixed up Ludwig Drum which was on Damen around 1800 North & then that was closed about 1984 & is now condos, then it moved to North Carolina
      Slingerland was in Kalamazoo.

    2. Thank you Clark Street! In this forum I never fear being wrong. I'll just get the right info, and here The System Works.

  5. Hmm, I don’t think the Stones’s (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction is a reworked I Can’t Be Satisfied, although they did cover the latter song.

  6. Re: Jelly Roll. He made some of his best recordings with his Red Hot Peppers at the Webster Hotel in 1926. That was also the venue for Benny Goodman's first recordings (at the age of 17) with Ben Pollack's orchestra. All these sides are available on YouTube and well worth listening to.

    1. Jelly Roll had a storied career and an unmatched ego. His autobiography began "In the beginning God created heaven and earth. In 1492 Columbus discovered the Americas. And in 1885 Jelly Roll Morton was born." Got started as a professor (pianist) in a New Orleans whore house and spent a long career playing with and irritating most of the jazz greats.


  7. * The Loop 'L' structure: A National Historic Landmark, used by tens of millions of CTA riders every year. It's an elevated rapid transit system. San Francisco and its cutesy cable cars? A tourist attraction. Meh.

    * Essanay Studios on W. Argyle: The earliest animated cartoons. And the first Westerns were made on the prairies of what later became Lincolnwood and Skokie (there's still an East Prairie Road), until Charlie Chaplin, fed up with Chicago's unpredictable weather, left for Hollywood. The film industry soon followed. But Hollywood began at Essanay. There are still working studios, film labs, and soundstages at the original historic site.

    * Wrigley Field: Keep your Sawx, Boston. Fenway Park has rats the size of small cats. I've seen them.

    * Italian beef. Deep-dish pizza. Twinkies. Vacuum cleaners. Sixteen-inch softball.

    * And all the innovations introduced at the 1893 World's Fair: Including the first Ferris wheel. Brownies. Yellow pencils. Zippers. And maybe the most important one of all--the first mechanical dishwasher.

    My kind of town!

  8. There are clearly many things which originated in and/or are associated with Chicago. But that Japanese shop has it right, I think. If you had to narrow it down to 3, used kimonos, palm trees and sharks would probably be the most resonant.

    I guess the Chicago Handshake is pretty far down the list. (By which I mean an Old Style and a shot of Malort, not a bribe nor shooting somebody while shaking their hand -- earlier meanings of the term.)

  9. Totally enjoyed this walk through our city of outsized shoulders. So sad that much of the world reduces us to Al Capone and Michael Jordan.

    1. When I was in Europe, I couldn't tell you how many people said bang, bang, Al Capone, once they heard I was from Chicago. It really was bizarre.


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