Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remembering Ric Hess, the Hilly Kristal of Chicago literature

I can’t claim to have been close friends with Ric Hess, the Chicago writer and restaurateur who died unexpectedly on Monday. We chatted from time to time and knew each other by name, but our relationship was more that of colleagues than friends. That didn’t keep Ric from playing a major role in my writing career.

People from outside of Chicago are often puzzled when I explain that city’s culture of readings in bars. I can understand that. In many people’s minds, literary readings are supposed to be mild-mannered affairs relegated to bookstores, coffee shops and maybe the occasional wine bar. Conversely, the accompanying entertainment to a night of drinking is supposed to be a karaoke machine, a raucous bar band or, if you’re feeling intellectual, a pub quiz. The Chicago scene is different, as I learned in my four years in the Fiction Writing Master’s program at Columbia College. Chicago, much to my delight, is peppered with writers unpretentious enough to debut their new stories in front of a hooting crowd of barflies, and bars open-minded enough to host them.

As the owner of Sheffield’s, Ric Hess was instrumental in shaping what I believe to be a genuine literary movement. In a neighborhood renowned for drunken hooliganism, he built up a classy yet welcoming bar and grill beloved by beer connoisseurs and gourmands. By opening his doors to Reading Under the Influence, Sexy Bald Men and other local reading events, he nurtured a vibrant, enthusiastic artistic community the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. When I think of the key landmarks from my time on Chicago’s fiction writing scene, Sheffield’s is second only to Columbia College itself.

When you attended a reading at Sheffield’s, you weren’t just going out to hear some gasbag writers over-enunciating their meticulously groomed manuscripts. No, you were throwing yourself into the midst of a twisted, talented family of artists whose primary objective was to support, inspire and appreciate the hell out of one another. Any given Reading Under the Influence (RUI) installation could run the gamut from Julia Borcherts spinning a tale of an illicit romance with a Harry Caray impersonator to Rob Duffer reading a breathlessly detailed passage from Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage to Kathy Bergquist blessing the room with the most hilariously gruesome fisting scene ever committed to paper.

Ric presided over all this writerly rabble as both patriarch and participant. A damn fine writer himself, he sometimes graced the RUI stage with his tough, muscular prose and confident delivery. Most nights, though, he was behind the scenes. I’m sure many of the attendees had no idea who he was, or how instrumental he was in fueling the boisterous, breathtaking literary scene they were all a part of. If Sheffield’s was our CBGB, Ric was our Hilly Kristal, a courageous, innovative entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to put himself on the line for the art he believed in. Whether I was there to read or just listen, stepping into the back room always gave me a warm, welcome feeling, even before I got a pint of Red Hook in me. That’s not an easy effect to pull off, especially when you’re dealing with a group as mercurial as up-and-coming authors. As a reader, a writer, a drinker and a lover of the arts, I appreciate the hell out of Ric and all he did to facilitate that feeling.

Godspeed, Ric Hess. I wish I'd thanked you when I had the chance. For what it's worth, you damn sure made the world a better place than it was when you showed up.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The five most misleading album covers in my record collection

One thing I really like about buying vinyl records – they’re often cheap enough that I can afford to take a gamble on a band I’ve never heard of just because I like their cover art. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is often possible to judge an album by its cover, especially when you’re dealing with psych-rock, prog or funk. Sometimes, though, I fall victim to the old bait-and-switch. It’s uniquely disheartening to discover that the insane record sleeve I’ve so graciously invited into my home is nothing but a fa├žade for garden-variety garbage. After thumbing through my collection, I’ve called a few of the worst offenders on the carpet.

Brick – Good High
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Is that not one of the greatest album covers of the 1970s? Just looking at that beaming dude and his illicit candy bar is enough to get your toes tapping. You have to assume that this is going to be one tripped-out funk record, or at least something with a cool reggae influence. Instead, it’s a fairly standard proto-disco funk disc, boasting a few nice breaks and a lot of filler. It’s not an awful album by any means – the much-sampled “Dazz” is pretty hot – but the chasm between my expectations and reality has seldom been deeper.

Dreams – Imagine My Surprise
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You have to figure a band cool enough to commission cover art by Gahan Wilson – the macabre cartooning icon who’s like a bridge between Charles Addams and Gary Larson – is going to bring something to the table, right? Especially since they were apparently fine with Wilson drawing them pajama-clad and on the verge of being swallowed by a giant vagina monster? Sadly, what’s inside is undistinguished horn rock that could charitably be called “a poor man’s Chicago.” Dreams bassist Will Lee did go on to a lifelong gig with David Letterman’s house band. I guess that’s something.

Don Ralke – Bongo Madness
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Look at that cover. Look at how much fun those folks are having. Maybe their little bongo party hasn’t spilled over into full-scale madness yet, but it’s in the mail, that’s for sure. It’s just too bad that the accompanying record inspires exactly none of the emotions on display in that image. Oh, there’s bongo, to be sure, but the madness is regrettably hard to come by. These tepid easy-listening grooves are more like Bongo Mildness.

Casiopea – Eyes of the Mind
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OK, you’ve got your astrological band name, your eyeball-and-spacescape cover art and your pretentious album title. Then you flip the jacket over and find that not only was the album released in 1981, but the band is also entirely Japanese. Is there any conceivable way that this is not some bizarre lost classic of prog rock? Well, yeah. Apparently the other option is that Casiopea is an elevator jazz combo that churned out the blandest Muzak knock-offs this side of my neighborhood Pamida store.

Barrabas – Watch Out
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I have no recollection of buying this record. I assume it was a trophy from one of my psychedelic shopping sprees at Reckless Records in Chicago that got filed away before I got around to putting it on the turntable. Whatever the case, I was hyped when I pulled Watch Out out of my stacks a few months back. The Biblically inspired band name coupled with a nude snake-woman teasing her hair in an oppressively purple dressing room carried the promise of something dark, trippy and deeply psychedelic. But no worries, Barrabas – you guys go on ahead with your watered-down Euro-disco. Oh heavens no, your undeniably killer album cover is in no way tainted by the sub-roller-rink jams you’ve seen fit to preserve in vinyl. Whatever gave you that idea? Say, what’s Spanish for “infinitely forgettable”?