The news that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in an effort to better understand the Chicago music scene, had rented a rehearsal space and was inviting musicians to drop by and chat after his band had jammed first zipped around the Net early last week; my friend and WBEZ colleague Tony Sarabia forwarded the message to me after someone sent it to him via Facebook. I sent a quick email trying to confirm it, got nothing in return and forgot about it until Vortis gathered for its own regular Saturday morning session at its longtime space at Superior Street Studios.
Sitting on a sleepy industrial stretch of the block that gives it its name, in a three-story factory building near the intersection of Chicago and Grand avenues in Ukrainian Village, Superior Street has been operating as one of Chicago’s best rehearsal facilities for 13 years, renting out 100 rooms to musicians by the hour or the month for more-or-less reasonable rates and providing stellar amenities such as heat, clean bathrooms and a working elevator—all niceties generally unheard of in this highly specialized subgenre of the fiercely competitive rental market.
One of the more endearing traits of the fine folks who own and operate the place is their desire to make it less of a business than a center of Chicago music, holding holiday parties and a summer barbecue, and publishing a monthly newsletter cheekily entitled The Inside Sh*t. Usually, these photocopied pages, taped to all of the regular tenants’ doors on the first of the month, are full of useful reminders (“Rent is due on the 1st of the month, NOT the 5th, 10th, 19th, or 26th!”) and gentle scolding that the authors attempt to deliver in a hip tone to deflect charges that they sound like mom and dad (“For the person who likes to keep sticking the Kuma’s Corner ‘Sea of Sh*t’ burger stickers on our vending machines, please stop. We all know waiting six hours for a burger and listening to garbage-disposal-sounding metal is retarded, but it’s even more of a pain in the ass to get the stickers off the machines”). But this month’s edition led with a truly intriguing item:
“Our Mayor: Rahm Emanuel has now taken a room at Superior St. for the next month. In an effort to immerse himself in the music community he has decided to come to rehearse with us. His band is of the jazz fusion/hip-hop variety and he’s quite a good guitar player. He has encouraged us all to stop in and say hi and would love your input about Chicago’s music community and what he can do to improve it. He’s in Room 350 on the third floor at the east end of the building. Please welcome Rahm aboard!”
However unlikely, once a potentially juicy story has pinged the radar two or three times, a diligent journalist never fails to check it out. So, after the usual invigorating practice session (40 tunes in 70 minutes!), I penned the following note in Sharpie on the back of an old set list—“Mr. Mayor: Jim DeRogatis of WBEZ here; my punk band rehearses in 326. If you really are working here, I want to talk to you about that and will reach out through [mayoral spokesperson] Tarrah [Cooper]. Please consider it”—and Tony and Louie Vortis and I set out to slip it under the door of Room 350 when we left for the day.
The problem was Room 350 doesn’t exist; it’s not at the east end of the building, and it’s not anywhere else on the third floor. The rooms end with 349. The item at the top of this month’s Inside Sh*t was, of course, an April Fool’s joke. Duh.
The bit about playing guitar in a jazz fusion/hip-hop band should have been the tip-off. If anything, Rahm is the prototypical lead-vocalist/bass player—anyone who’s ever known one will no doubt agree—and it’s much easier to picture him in an extreme metal band, given his temperament and infamous love of profanity, and not discounting his celebrated roots in ballet; the genre is lousy with musos with classical training. Yet the prank was believable because, well, city government is in the midst of the much-ballyhooed compilation of a new Cultural Plan, complete with the ensuing “ground truthing” efforts chronicled here, and the mayor certainly has bragged enough about caring for Chicago music, even if attending the occasional Wilco show hardly qualifies him as a true devotee or an expert.
What’s disappointing isn’t that I was duped; it’s that the story should be true. Any way I look at it—as a musician, as a music fan or as a journalist—Superior Street is an inspiring place, full of unexpected nobility and pure magic. Stroll the halls at a prime rehearsal time, on Saturday mornings or Friday nights, and as you pass one closed door after another, in the space of half a city block, you’ll hear salsa, garage rock, hair metal, punk, industrial, emo, screamo, hip-hop, alt-country, jam-band wankery, unspeakably bad covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival or Sammy Hagar, and genres that simply cannot be named, either because a term has yet to be coined for such explosive creativity, or because the attempt to mimic whatever sounds the musicians are approximating is so far off the mark you can’t even begin to hazard a guess.
The occasional cracked door offers a glimpse of the interiors of these rooms: part clubhouse, part place of worship and all endlessly revealing of their inhabitants. A beat-up Farfisa organ, well-worn Marshall stack, walls covered with three layers of band fliers, flea-infested Salvation Army couch and big green barrel can overflowing with empty Pabst cans says one thing. A four-tier keyboard rack, 12-piece Sonor Bubinga wood drum set, neatly stacked digital recording equipment, piece of abstract art on a music stand and a spiffy dorm-room fridge says another. And so on.
In short, Superior Street is a microcosm of the Chicago music community in all of its incredible diversity and unequaled vibrancy. Hardly anyone outside the inner circle of that world even knows it exists, yet there is no better way to take its measure, and to judge its vitality and consider its concerns at a grassroots level far removed from the gloss and hype of Taste of Chicago or Lollapalooza, which as we all know really are aimed at Schaumburg and beyond anyway. The people at Superior Street and the handful of other buildings like it live and work in the city, contributing daily to its culture and its economy. And they vote—or at least they’re eligible to.
For that reason alone, as his minions craft their cultural plan, the mayor would benefit enormously from a visit to Superior Street or the handful of other places like it, just as he would gain much from visiting the similar buildings dedicated to work spaces for painters, sculptors and photographers or the lofts converted to independent theater workshops. These places are where the people who are the heart and soul of each of these artistic communities can be found in their elements, not at the House of Blues, the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Cadillac Palace Theatre. And they’re certainly not at City Hall.
With that in mind, I’ll proffer an invitation: Come take a half-hour tour of Superior Street, Mr. Mayor. If this one of your many constituencies really does matter to you, you’ll learn more about the Chicago music scene than anyone at the redesigned Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events or the team behind the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 could begin to tell you. And you’re even welcome to sit in with Vortis for a song or two.
(Shot of Louie Vortis in the space by me; all other photos from the Superior Street Web site.)
THE VORTIS DIARIES