Chicago – Electrical Audio

This is a studio door that I will not be knocking on, the wrath of Steve Albini is not something I am prepared for. This building however….. you like:

The Pixies?
Urge Overkill?
The Jesus Lizard?
Pussy Galore?
The Breeders?
Jon Spencer?
PJ Harvey?
The Fleshtones?
Thrush Hermit?
Guided by Voices?
Veruca Salt?
Cheap Trick?
The Sadies?

About a hundred more…. ALL Steve Albini, all here, all Chicago, all awesome.

Steve is a total personal hero, the master of DIY recording, philosophically opposed to the very idea of royalties (his record producing always comes with a one-time flat fee, unheard of).

I sat out here quite a while in the heat with a playlist of stuff recorded inside, Chicago keeps delivering.


I woke up with the following pieces of paper stuffed in my pockets, various lists of places to go and people to talk to in the city, I am thrilled with the people here.

I don’t know how to describe Chicago at all, and as I’ve mentioned before I write like a 5th grader with ADHD. It’s taken three days to stop comparing it to NYC but that’s left me without a solid line or two to summarize.

The friendliness is impressive, I am not exactly outgoing, I sit in a coffee shop or a cocktail bar with my drink and a book and pretty much just wait and see what happens, if the place is nice and has AC and I am left alone then that is great, if someone engages and we go off on an adventure then that is even better.

I stopped in at a few little neighborhood bars last night before finding the right one on about round three, or perhaps it’s after three rounds that a bar becomes the right one, not sure. In any case this bar, Matchbox, was perfect, it was suggested to me by the people I met at Richard’s Bar on night one, it took some time for the staff to soften and for me to melt but in the end I was yet again being forbidden from paying for drinks, even my own, and woke up this morning with a handful of slips of paper in various handwriting all instructing me on where to go and who to meet and what to eat and drink in the rest of the city.

Because I forgot my camera at home this trip I haven’t really been taking a lot of photos, I have a couple from the fellows at Matchbox last night but they are blurry beyond use. The ice broke like this:

(I forget their names, they wrote them down for me to pass along to another place on their list but I cannot read what they wrote)

Bartender One: “Did you ever go pick up that sweet guitar?”
Bartender Two: “The Epiphone?”
One: “Yeah, that sweet Epiphone, don’t let that sit in a basement man, baby blue or not”
Me: “What, you have some original baby blue Casino locked away in Mom’s basement?”
Both burst out laughing and confirm that is exactly the case (Epiphone Casino’s were really special guitars).

It may sound dreamy or perhaps too literal but I feel like the social skills I’ve been working at improving in recent years are now a set of keys and each person, place or situation I come across while solo-travelling is a door, try them all and eventually the evening lets you in.

Day Two Chicago – Honestly No Words…. except these 1000

I’ve had an amazing day, last night was shockingly unusual and wonderful and memorable however I am not going to write about anything else from last night or today to make sure I tell the following story properly.

I apologize in advance, this will probably come out flowery, I don’t know how to write.

Most of you know that I like podcasts, a lot. At different times in my life they have been an amazing voice of friendship. The very first podcast that ever hooked me, the one that convinced me that this was an art form, was an episode of “This American Life” from Nov of 2000.

In Nov of 2000 “This American Life” sent a squad of staffers to the Golden Apple Grill in Chicago, a 24 hour greasy spoon neighborhood anchor that everyone should know about. The staff spent an entire 24 hour period in the diner, talking to each and every guest, from 5am to 5am, and then assembled an amazing series of stories from these interviews.

I loved it so much that I immediately burned it onto CD to listen to in the car, over the years I must have listened to ’24 Hours at the Golden Apple’ 30 times, it is my go-to podcast when people ask what they should listen to. I always said when I visit Chicago for the first time the Golden Apple would be a must stop.

Last night, around midnight, with just an hour to spare between plans, I popped into the Golden Apple for a slice of coconut creme pie, I met Mary, Mary is a lifelong waitress, open and happy and wonderful, I didn’t mention the podcast (it was 17 years ago!) but had a really great hour with her.

Tonight I popped in again, around 11pm and was relieved beyond belief to see Mary working, she remembered me and sat me at my table from last night. We started talking, I told her where I am from and why I am in town, I asked her how she was doing. Mary sat down across from me and explained that she had buried her father this afternoon and that when I met her yesterday she had just come from his wake, she said a few times how she needed to be at the Golden Apple this week and called it home (in the podcast several families mention that they have instructed their young children, if they are ever lost, to ask to be taken to the Golden Apple).

I don’t know what to write, I choked up, Mary told me about her dad (88 years old, the best man she ever knew) born and raised in Chicago, doing everything he had to in order to support 8 kids. I told Mary about my own family and my parents, her immediate concern over their well-being and her questions about them choked me up immediately again.

Mary suggested the chicken noodle soup and the burger, I’m not all that hungry but am thrilled to eat whatever she suggests.

The chicken noodle soup is awesome, the coffee is diner great and the burger is classic.

On the podcast there is a discussion about how the dessert tray had recently stopped rotating and how sales were down since it broke, the manager promised it would be fixed in a week.

The dessert tray is not spinning tonight, 17 years later, I ask Mary if it spins and she mentions that long ago, maybe 20 years it used to but that it hasn’t worked in a long time.

I’ve been here a few hours now, the restaurant is alternately busy and quiet and if I lived here I would be here constantly. I had originally had a long list of questions from the podcast that I wanted to ask someone (the 17 year olds from the podcast would be 32 now!) here but it seems now like it would be out of place.

Mary came by once more before I left, we chatted a bit more and she held my hands, she said “You’re worried about me, I know, I’m ok, I will take a few days off next week, will I see you again?”.

I lingered until I run out of excuses not to leave and eventually headed back to my hotel before the trains stopped running.


Day One – Chicago is hot, is not NYC

My hotel is in Chinatown, just south of downtown, and qualifies in the “basic accommodations” category, though it is clean and the AC cold.

Chicago’s Chinatown is interesting, it’s small, just a few blocks from what I can see but feels older than Vancouver’s (though it probably isn’t) perhaps due to the apparent lack of any period of redevelopment.

I left the hotel 90 minutes later than planned this morning (oh heavens!) and the 20 minute walk to breakfast is alarmingly hot, 34c with 80% humidity by 10am, this is less than ideal, to say the least. (Alec, SE Asia may be a problem).

I find an old diner where the owner is making the most of a one-off 2am visit by Tom Waits in 1987, it works for me and the food’s good. They even brew their own rootbeers and the bartender is eager to sample with me.

Breakfast is followed by another 20 minute park walk in stunning heat, by the time I reach the art institute I am overheating badly, I spend the next half hour by an AC vent before buying my ticket.

The museum is extremely exciting, seeing Nighthawks and American Gothic and two dozen other pieces that even myself with no art experience recognizes and am for some reason surprised to see in Chicago is awesome.

I spend nearly five hours here, it is possibly the best gallery I’ve seen, rivals the Met in NYC easily.

Walk around downtown, love it already, can’t explain why, can’t explain why it’s not New York. It’s like New York’s half-brother.

Eventually realize I’m dangerously overheated and head back to the hotel to change into smarter clothes and cool down.

I accidentally nap for an hour or so and have an ice shower and head out for some of this new-fangled Chicago style pizza pie.

The pizza is great, not quite what I expected, lighter and more buttery than I pictured. I manage to scarf only two pieces before I head out to find a drink.

Weekends are terrible nights for dive bars so I’ve got to pack as many into tonight as possible.

I take the blue line and then the green and end up at Richard’s Bar, a classic of a sort I may never have seen in quite so sharp a focus before. it has it all, especially a South Side Chicago slicked back hair bartender with a toothpick in his mouth who is eager to tell me everywhere I need to go in town for each type of cuisine.

Richard’s Bar is just so perfect, friendly person after friendly person, it’s well into the evening before I pay for a drink at all. The evening continued on and included a slice of pie at an all night diner but I seem to have forgotten to photograph the rest of the evening.

I do love the “El” though…

“I was flying into Chicago at night, watching the sky turn the lake into blue-green smoke.”
-Liz Phair “Stratford-Upon-Guy”

I’ve spent the past week in Las Vegas for work, as it was the dozenth visit I’ve posted nothing of it here and really only left the hotel twice to go for a walk the entire time.

I began rereading Ford’s Bascombe books in Vegas and as poor a fit as they were for the Strip they are certain to be perfect for Chicago despite their Jersey setting.

Four amazing ladies waiting for their flight back to San Diego bought me drink after drink in old Terminal 1 in Vegas, eventually culminating in a wedding proposal, lol. This sort of spontaneous, unplanned social interaction seems to be more common following the efforts I’ve made to improve my social skills in recent years and the whole interaction was a blast

I was also inexplicably upgraded to first class on the flight.

It is 1am and I have just boarded the El train from O’hare to my Chinatown hotel, the ride, on the Blue and later the Red lines will take about an hour. Ive known for decades that the Blue and Red would get me from the airport to downtown and I’m thrilled to finally be riding the El, my interest in subways was nutured almost entirely by representations of New York’s and London’s subways along with Chicago’s elevated train, the largest of it’s type in the world.