Monday, October 15, 2012


I was in Chicago last weekend.

My wife and I took a trip alone together, first time in forever, to eat at some restaurants, see a concert, sight-see, and shop. 

Our hotel had a gorgeous, unobstructed view of Lake Michigan right at the Navy Pier, walking distance to the Magnificent Mile, and all the shops and restaurants. One of the highlights--really one of the points--of the trip was dinner at Frontera Grill. Some background. For a decade now, I've been very firm that Frontera's Habanero Salsa is the absolute best salsa in the world--all natural, no preservatives, vegetables grilled first and then stone ground. I've wanted to try chef Rick Bayless's restaurants for years, and have even sent friends passing to Chicago through to check it out and report back. But I haven't been in Chicago in almost ten years. So you can bet that was a first stop.
Duck in Red Pipian

We had the Fall Guacamole and the Fried Sweet Plantains, then followed it with Catfish with Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa and Duck in Red Pipian. The food was all wonderful, and beautifully presented, though in truth the appetizers out-shown the entrees. Next time I'm in Chicago, I might make a meal of just appetizers, with at least two orders of the plantains. (I don't often blog about food, and certainly never photograph it, so this section is dedicated to my friend Joe Mallozzi).

We also caught a movie - I finally got to see Looper. I'll post a full review later this week, but suffice to say that it's the Real Deal. You can certainly see its influence--Terminator, Akira, 12 Monkeys, Paycheck, Children of the Corn, the entire catalog of PKD--it was very much its own animal. And what an uncompromising film! I cannot recommend it highly enough. I've loved most of what I've seen in 2012--what a year for film this has been--but feel I've just seen my Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form Hugo nomination.

Ghosts of old memories
We took a trip on the L to my old neighborhood, where I lived for two years in the early 90s. It was really weird to stand on the front steps of a place I lived two decades ago. There's not much in the neighborhood of interest, so even if I'm back in Chicago, this was probably my last time out. Just a quick visit to say hello to the ghosts of old memories.

Then we went to The Museum of Science and Industry, which was incredible. They have a real, captured German U-boat in a permanent installation (it was lowered in on four cranes and then they built the roof around it). An incredible experience.

Then we saw Robyn Hitchcock perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music--a decent distance outside of town but a really great venue. I've been a fan of Hitchcock's music for a long time. I interviewed him some years back for The Believer, and I was honored to publish two poems he wrote in my anthology, Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge. When I lived in LA, I was walking distance from a venue that he played at several times a year. Now that I'm in the Deep South, I don't get to hear him as often. So this was the point of the trip. He played two shows, and we had tickets for both. The first show was a straight play-through of his album, Eye.The second show was an all request show. He played for an hour and fifteen minutes, took an hour and a half between shows, then came back and played for two hours and fifteen minutes. Acoustics were wonderful and there were no bad seats, but we were at a table in the very front with an unobstructed view right to him. He talked about how things had changed since he played the Vic in Chicago in 1992 (I was at that show!). His voice was incredible and his guitar work is really amazing. There's a song called Sweet Ghost of Light which I've always known was probably the most intimate depiction of an artist's relationship with their muse ever penned. Except muse is the wrong word because it's not so external. I had a particularly emotional response to the song, so, for that reason, here are the lyrics:
sweet ghost of light, when you appear
you fall around me, everywhere

I see your face as you pass by
as fragile as a dragonfly

you jab me in the kidneys like

a compass or an iron spike

but I can't help believing you

because I love the things you do
sweet ghost of light, I've lived too long
I'd die for you inside this song

the sweetest death that I can dream
like petals flowing down a stream

that turn to blood, as they dissolve
it's all around you I revolve

sweet ghost of light, you'll never fade

by nothing else are you betrayed

you fill me 'til I'm empty and

you empty me like grains of sand

i love you more than anyone
beneath the moon, beneath the sun
Hitchcock live is not like seeing any other performer, and the reason for this are the stories and asides he tells between songs. They are full of absurdist imagery and wisdom. At one point he talked about a town in England that wanted to be Chicago, but which had its hopes crushed, like three moose dropped on a birthday cake. "A gesture of unnecessary force. Force is never applied unless it's unnecessary. That's the purpose of government." Later he spoke about how his stories told between songs are funny but the songs themselves can be quite sad. "That's because when I'm talking, I'm thinking, but when I'm playing, I'm feeling. And bits of the one may get into the other. One day I'll become fully integrated and you'll know because I'll just levitate up into the air and disappear."

We got out after midnight and took a long L ride back to the hotel. Long, late night L rides are another cause for nostalgia.

Seeing a place I lived two decades ago, and a performer I've followed for over two decades, was an oddly affecting time. I'll probably never visit the house again, even if I return to Chicago. There's nothing in the neighborhood that draws me more than what is available elsewhere, unless I see a game at Wrigley Field (unlikely). I'll definitely take another trip to Chicago though, stay downtown and hit more museums. And eat at Frontera Grill. Thanks, Windy City, for a great time.


Woomungus said...

Lucky you! I've been a Robyn Hitchcock fan since Globe of Frogs but have never had a chance to see him live.

Lou Anders said...

You should! Have you heard any taped live shows?