four bars from last night

red head piano bar.jpg

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. It’s very comfortable, people happily reveling in a musical style that puts them several decades out of date.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 “girl’s 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.

2 thoughts on “four bars from last night

  1. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I am prompted to make the most old-fashioned possible response to your closing conundrum (but a response that I think still has merit). Namely that one of the reasons we (anthropologists) go to places like Papua New Guinea is to learn to see the ways in which the people you describe all do live in the same imaginative universe.

    I think I CAN see the ways in which they occupy the same culture and economy, but actually describing that culture and economy is more difficult. This is the real “writing culture” question, obscured somewhat by the epistemolgical angst induced by the “reflexive turn.”

    Some beginnings (some of which owe not a little to _Culture and Consumption_).: All these people live in a world of fashion (which is condition of possibility of the notion of “retro”). They all buy objects and go to places with some underlying notion that these are acts of self construction, self discovery, self expression etc. They all probably divide their lives into work & leisure in certain ways, perhaps divide their leisure in similar ways, have a sense of having an audience (whatever their stance toward that is). All of this stuff is “cultural” in the sense that it reflects a historically contingent semiotic field.

    That’s all very general stuff, applicable to many in “the West” but I think applicable to Americans in a particualr way that I haven’t quite been able to specify. Its also true that in many ways the peopleyou write about also differ. One way to think about this is to think of “cultures” as multiple and interpenetrating, and as consisting in part of templates or models for doing things. See for example John Kelly’s ideas on capitalism as “a culture” in “Fiji Indians and ‘Commoditization of Labor'” in _American Ethnologist_ 19(1):97-120 (1992).

  2. Grant

    Daniel, splendid post, thank you. I guess what I was struck be was how very different each of these “subcultures” are, so different in fact that the “sub” notion is put in question. I am sure you are right to say that there are multiple realities at work here, but whether and how much they are “interpenetrating” is for me the problem. Yes, they are all deploying meanings that come to them from a market place, but this account says that they share form more than content. When they take these meanings and create very different worlds, where is the sharedness? I don’t say there isn’t any. I’m just not sure we have a model that allows us to show what it is and how it works. And, yes, I couldn’t agree more than the reflexive turn takes us down a rabbit hole.

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