Is the City of Chicago Anti-Rock?

July 14, 2002


Eight years on from the alternative explosion of the mid-’90s, when the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Veruca Salt, and Liz Phair drew national attention to the local music scene, Chicago remains one of the most vibrant cities in America for cutting-edge rock, as well as for house music (which was born here) and hip-hop (which thrives in defiance of the dominating sounds that hail from the coasts and the south).

But you would never have known this from looking at the musical lineup for this year’s Taste of Chicago festival, an embarrassment of bland and mediocre has-beens. And the problem isn’t just with Taste.

From shutting a reunion of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead out of Grant Park, to helping to drive Lounge Ax out of business, to failing to support a proper musical museum such as the one at the Motown Studio in Detroit, Chicago consistently fails to honor its rich pop-music history, and it actively turns its back on the thriving present-day scene.

Though the city’s cultural czars deny this, Chicago seems to have a real problem with rock ’n’ roll. Consider the following:

* While this year’s Summerfest in neighboring Milwaukee included first-rate acts such as Ben Folds, Alanis Morissette, Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers, Lucinda Williams, Alicia Keys, the Eagles, Gov’t Mule, Los Lobos, and Chicagoans Local H, the Taste lineup gave us the likes of Foreigner, Survivor, and Hootie and the Blowfish—all fairly dismal bands at their best, and now well past their primes.

The difference, city officials are quick to point out, is that Summerfest charges admission to its concerts, as do other major annual music fests such as the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans and the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference in Austin, Texas. Chicago remains committed to the music at Taste being free, and this is a noble goal. But free garbage is still free garbage.

Surely the greatest city in America can do better than tiny burgs like Austin and Milwaukee.

Not surprisingly, part of the problem is politics. Starting in 1999, the city opted to handle the booking at Taste itself, working in conjunction with local radio stations instead of recruiting professional concert promoters like Jam Productions or Clear Channel Entertainment. “It was kind of for financial reasons; we were able to take monies that went outside and put them into the entertainment that we were hiring for the Taste,” says city spokeswoman Cindy Gatziolis.

But the city also admits concerns about the kind of crowd that edgier rock artists might draw. “The suggestion that certain acts are not welcome, well, it’s really not about rock; it’s really any genre of music that would draw too large a crowd,” Gatziolis says. “Obviously, by nature of this being free, we have to keep some sort of perimeter control. The Stones or Britney Spears—that type of act would just draw too much.”

This, of course, is relative. Officials estimated that the crowd for the July 3rd fireworks display would draw 1.5 million people to the lakefront. Crowds of a similar size were drawn to Grant Park for celebrations of the Bulls’ championships. No matter how big the musical star, it is doubtful that they would exceed those draws.

The acts that played at this year’s Taste did not do so for free. Certainly there were dozens of other more vibrant artists—including locals from alternative country chanteuse Neko Case, to grunge-rockers Local H, to dance-music hero Felix da Housecat—who would have performed for the same amount or less, and which Chicago could have been much prouder of. (Wilco’s headlining performance on July 4, 2001 remains one of the few Taste standouts in the last four summers.)

This city deserves a music festival that ranks with the country’s best. (Bluesfest isn’t it--it operates under the same constraints of limited funds to secure prime headliners.) If New Orleans can pull it off every year, why can’t Chicago?

* We’ve been hearing for years about the city’s ambitious Grant Park Framework Plan, which was finally officially adopted by the City Council on May 8. As part of the park’s new-millennial makeover, concerts will eventually be shifted away from the Petrillo Band Shell (host of Taste and the Blues Fest) south to Hutchinson Field, where plans call for a new natural amphitheatre. But rock may not be welcome there.

Last August, local promoters Jam presented Radiohead in Hutchinson Field in what the city viewed as a test of the new site’s feasibility. Despite complaints of some sound conflicts with the Grant Park Symphony and objections about the noise and the crowds from some residents, nearly everyone deemed the show a success. But at the last minute, Jam was denied the chance to bring Terrapin Station, the reunion of the surviving members of the Dead, to the same site this August 3rd and 4th.

Instead, the concert was sent packing to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy—which means that the approximately 100,000 people the show would have drawn took hundreds of thousands of dollars of business out of the city and the state, depriving Chicago hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and convenience stores of that income, and forcing local residents to travel to (a collective groan) Wisconsin.

The controversy recalls an earlier one in 1998, when the Smashing Pumpkins, the most successful rock band this city has ever produced, wanted to play a concert benefiting local children’s charities in Grant Park, and were similarly denied permission by the Parks District. (They wound up performing at what was then the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park.)

These concerts would not have cost Chicago taxpayers; promoters here all pay a hefty entertainment tax that funds clean-up and security. True, with Terrapin Station, some softball teams would have been denied access to Hutchinson Field for four days, and neighbors across Michigan Avenue from the park would have had to put up with some noise and inconvenience. (About 100 of them signed a petition protesting.) But such is life in the big city.

Try living anywhere near Wrigley Field and see what kind of hassles you have to deal with on a regular basis. In the end, these kinds of events are what makes city living special, and so much more exciting than life in the suburbs.

I’m still waiting for Chicago Parks chief David Doig to respond to a request I made in late May for a sit-down interview about rock in Grant Park—“I can’t believe that you think this is worth an article,” spokeswoman Angie Amores said—but sources familiar with negotiations for the aborted Terrapin Station concert said Doig didn’t think the Dead was a suitable group for Grant Park, or that its fans were a desirable audience.

The fact is, Grant Park belongs to Deadheads and Pumpkins fans as much as it belongs to joggers and softball players. Their taxes are certainly welcomed by the city. Only  their music isn’t.

* Chicago’s music clubs are consistently cited as some of the best in the country, and they are a major draw for tourists as well as a lucrative attraction for local residents. But talk to the owner of any rock, blues, jazz, or dance venue, and you’ll hear nothing but a frustrated litany of complaints about hassles from city building inspectors, police (who monitor noise complaints), the Fire Department, and the Liquor Control Commission.

This isn’t to say that the city should turn a blind eye toward violations; we rely on it to secure public safety. But club owners (who only speak off the record, fearing even more trouble if they complain in public) say that the scrutiny given to the handful of music venues far exceeds that given to the hundreds of sports and singles bars.

This was certainly the case with the late, lamented Lounge Ax, which finally shut down in 1999 after years of noise complaints that never seemed to trouble the many non-music bars located on the same strip of Lincoln Avenue west of Halstead.

Equally troubling is the city’s attitude about all-ages shows in rock-club settings. The legal maze that promoters have to negotiate in order for young music lovers to be allowed entrance to a venue that normally serves liquor has always been byzantine (many say that these licenses are simply no longer granted). But the situation has been even worse since the city passed a draconian anti-rave ordinance in May 2000, threatening promoters, DJs, and property owners with fines up to $10,000 for hosting an unlicensed dance party.

What’s more, Chicago’s most renowned all-ages rock club, the Fireside Bowl on Fullerton Avenue, has been on borrowed time for several years now. The city is going to seize the site under eminent domain in order to raze it and build a park. When it’s gone, it’s doubtful that it will be replaced.

When I decried the situation for underage fans on a recent episode of “Chicago Tonight,” Cheryl Hughes of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events suggested as all-ages alternatives Jazz Fest in Grant Park or a trip to Arlington Park. Memo to the city: Kids tend to like music that’s a little more upbeat (not to mention of their generation), and do we really want to encourage betting on horses over dancing to loud music?

* Finally, there’s the matter of history. Some of the most influential rock and blues music ever was recorded here. But while there are memorials and tours of everything from the Water Tower that survived the Chicago Fire to the garage that hosted the St. Valentine’s Massacre, how has the city honored its historic musical locales?

Maxwell Street, site of some of the most famous blues clubs and a strip that could have been our equivalent of New Orleans’ Beale Street, was bulldozed to make way for development. And while 2120 S. Michigan Ave., home of the legendary Chess Studio where Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry recorded, while designated as a landmark in 1990, it’s home to an under-funded, half-hearted museum (run by Blues Heaven, not the city), which offers exhibits and tours that pale in comparison to those presented at Sun Studio in Nashville or Motown in Detroit.

In recent years, the Illinois Film Commission has actively promoted Chicago as a base for big-time filmmakers, but no such body exists for music. Based in Austin, the Texas Music Office proudly promotes that state’s historic rockers (from the wholesome Buddy Holly to the relatively subversive 13th Floor Elevators), as well as lauding current Lone Star artists like Lucinda Williams and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, and lending its support to South By Southwest. The Louisiana Music Commission does the same there, and it plays an active role in the Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Heaven forbid any local resident encourage more state bureaucracy, but doesn’t Illinois need something similar?

One could argue that this city’s anti-rock bias, like many things here, dates back to the first Daley administration. The heads that were cracked during the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention included plenty of rock fans’, as well as those of the venerated MC5, the only band that attempted to perform at the protests. But surely our current Mayor Daley, who at 60 is the same age as Mick Jagger, grew up with a little bit more of appreciation for rock ’n’ roll.

Maybe that’s supposing too much. Listen, Mayor: I would be happy to burn you a great compilation CD featuring some of the best Chicago rock artists, past, present, and future. But you’d have to promise not to give us another Taste music lineup like the one we just endured; to consider one or two rock shows per summer in the new Grant Park; to lighten up on our rock clubs (support small businesses as well as the big guys!), and to pay more than lip service to this city’s musical history.

Is that really too much to ask?