Bars are great observation platforms. Next time you are in Chicago here are 4 possibilities, with preliminary field notes to get you started.
115 Bourbon Street (SE corner 115th and Homan Avenue)
This place featured a middle aged heavy metal band, a kind of unintentional tribute to This is Spinal Tap. Five guys in ill fitting leather or spandex pants. The lead singer was doing an Axel Rose imitation. The bass player was actually wearing a wig. (I guess he has a day job.) Everyone on stage was “head banging in unison until the cheap light stands began to sway alarmingly.
It was one of these strange post-irony performances. The band was at once completely guileless, deadly earnest, and relatively self mocking. Really, three acts in one. I think this worked for the audience which consisted of blue collar teens, college kids, outlaw biker type, and a slightly aggressive boomer singles scene at the bar complete with “cougars and knuckleheads. (“Cougars are women of middle age who are single and active in the bar scene. Knuckleheads are the male equivalent.)
Down town Chicago: The Redhead Lounge (16 West Ontario)
The piano player does a Billy Joel thing. Its very comfortable, people happily reveling in a musical style that puts them several decades out of date. It is the kind of place where you can feel your clothes going out of style (to borrow an old line from Hollywood.) And, no, you don’t care. And there was a couple waltzing drunkenly in the corridor. No sense of irony here. It is charming, unassuming, likeable but then in a great, blinding moment, you understand why Punk was born. This is your Johnnie Rotten moment, but being Canadian, you say nothing and leave quietly.
Downtown Chicago: N9NE: the Ghost Bar (440 West Randolph)
Well designed bar, well designed people, exuberant and glamorous both. The crowd was 30 something, very well heeled, with celebrities making periodic appearances. The music is electronica that threads into and out of consciousness in the most cunning way. (That could just be the vodka.) Lots of tiny, jewel like TV screens turn up in the most unexpected places. They were showing an episode of Dharma and Greg, which struck me at the time as a witty choice. The bar staff conducted several conversations simultaneously, working a range of topics, intoxications, and treatments with the genius of really good improv.
But then this is Chicago, the very birthplace of improv. If I really had my wits about me, I would track down that train station where Mike Nichols and Elaine May met for the first time. “Do you have ze package? he asked her, and that’s how improv was born. No, really.
Downtown Chicago: (name and address forthcoming)
A dark subterranean place with extravagant design scheme and Everything but the Girl playing on the sound track. This was once the toughest place to get into in the city. It is now so “over that the guy at the door reads a news paper and just waves you in. There was a “girls night out” taking place at the bar. And that’ pretty much it. For a change you can actually hear yourself think, but there is, of course, nothing much to think about. My waitress turned out to be a young women who talked about her new glasses with great animation and some intelligence for what seemed like 20 minutes. I listened in astonishment. Obviously, a champion talker. Guess what she does for a living? She is a dancer.
All of these people are Americans. All of them occupy the same culture and economy. It is very hard to figure how this is possible.