Even before I heard his music, I had decided not to like John Cage. Once I heard it, I liked him less. Only when there was no music to be heard did I begin to appreciate his peculiar genius.
This isn’t a story about John Cage. This is the story of a life unfolding in the context of music. Or maybe it’s about how music constructs a life. But Cage is the right place to start because he always reminds me that the beginning and end of all music is silence. Everything in between is—in another example of Cagean philosophy—up for grabs.
Cage—the 20th-century American experimental composer, writer, provocateur—was in the air in the mid-to-late 1970s, at least among my parents’ modern-art-loving friends. They would mention his 4’33” in conjunction with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, or Andy Warhol’s soup cans. I’m pretty sure I heard one of his installation pieces at the old Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the hub of this modern-art-loving community. If I did, I probably dismissed it as experimental nonsense.
I was a budding teenage jazz musician at the time with a streak of jazzer self-righteousness. So I tended to view all these artists as weird, old, white folks who wasted their creative energies experimenting with unmusical—or inartistic—concepts because they couldn’t paint or play the blues.
And then there were Cage’s statements about jazz: “I have little need for jazz, I can get along perfectly well without any jazz at all.” That made me angry. For an American musician to dismiss out of hand an entire genre—one that produced the likes of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis—was the height of arrogance. Particularly from a man who admitted he didn’t understand harmony. And yet . . .
Around that time, I was hosting weekly jam sessions in our basement, consisting of various older (20s to early 30s) jazz cats and me on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. One of the regulars—a rather smug trumpet player in his late 20s—had a habit of lecturing me on what I should be listening to.
“Yeah, Peter, you really need to check out Cecil Taylor, man!” Or Frank Zappa or whoever. He’d shout from across the room in a tone that said, “Of course, you’ll never be in their class.” Still, while I didn’t like him, I’d usually follow his advice because he, unlike me, was an adult musician who had lived. I figured he must know something.
He also had the virtue of being very specific about what I needed to check out. So when he told me, in so many words, that there was no possibility of my being hip if I didn’t check out Cage, he offered a primer: First, check out the pieces for prepared piano, then read Cage’s book, Silences.
And then after I did those things—and only after—I might just be ready to delve into I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination manual that was the basis of Cage’s musical thinking on chance and indeterminacy.
At the library, I checked out Silences and a recording of the piano pieces. I read part of I Ching standing in an aisle at a Rizzoli bookstore. The piano pieces, with their clangorous percussive sounds, were interesting in the sense that I didn’t really like them, but couldn’t forget them either. I don’t remember my reaction to Silences, which I didn’t finish, or to I Ching, which I barely skimmed. Neither made a serious impression. But I kept thinking about both. So I guess they did, even if the thinking was largely derisive.
Into my early 20s, I saw Cage as something of a joke. A musical charlatan who relied on an array of oddball concepts to cover up for a lack of artistic depth and talent. And, of course, he couldn’t play the blues. None of the classical guys could. His music, like a lot of experimental stuff—squeak-and-fart music as one bluesman friend of mine called it—lacked any cohesion or sense of development. It felt like it went nowhere and took its time getting there.
I would joke to my friends that Cage was really a decomposer. He callously deconstructed what musicians passionately had spent centuries constructing, but without reassembling the broken parts back into something worthy and whole. What good were the principles of chance and indeterminacy, worthy and true as they might be, if the end result was sonic chaos?
And for me, Cage’s work 4’33”—four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence—was the apotheosis (or nadir) of this meaninglessness. I did my best to forget about him.
* * *
Six years later, Cage reappeared by chance—not coincidentally. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, biding my time between miserable stints at two of America’s top music conservatories. I had moved to Madison to get out of Chicago. I was chasing after my future wife, which worked in the end, but not so much in the beginning.
I rented a ground-floor apartment across the street from the Badgers football stadium and spent hours practicing Berg’s Piano Sonata and Beethoven’s Waldstein on an upright piano the previous owner had painted bright orange. The piano was loud in volume too—all the better to mask the punk rock blasting from the stereo upstairs. But I still had to turn the fan on high to compete with that.
When I got tired of trying to out-duel the neighbors with solo piano—I should have been a drummer—I’d engage them in rounds of stereo wars, something I did in just about every apartment I ever lived in. Me cranking Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Coltrane’s Crescent, Beethoven’s 7th, Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind. The neighbors countering with Naked Raygun, the B-52s, the Ramones. In the end, they’d always win because their music was meant to be played loud. So I’d move on to the next apartment, ready to do battle again.
My stint back at Indiana University as a jazz major convinced me that I was meant to be a composer. So while in Madison, I studied composition with a local composer who taught me nothing. I also studied with a superb classical pianist—a funny and quirky old queen, who kept his young lover in the studio during lessons, terming him the assistant. The assistant did help demonstrate actual piano techniques during the lessons. My teacher insisted I stop playing the Beethoven and Berg, and focus on Bach, Mozart, and Schoenberg. I kept playing the Beethoven and Berg on the side.
As if to prove his quirkiness, he informed me during one lesson that he was putting on an all-Cage concert at a local church that summer. He commanded that I attend, jokingly threatening to cancel my lessons if I didn’t come. He insisted I really needed to hear Cage live. That sounded like my idea of hell, but out of respect, I went.
Well, of course, I loved it.
I don’t remember most of the program, but it included some of the pieces for prepared piano and at least one number with multiple competing radios—reminding me of my battle with the upstairs neighbors.
I enjoyed all of it, but the piece I remember best is his most famous, and perhaps, most necessary: 4’33”. It’s not actually called 4’33” of Silence, as I had always thought. And it’s not really silence that you’re meant to experience in the course of the performance. Rather, it’s all the sounds you hear around you when the performers don’t play.
4’33” is scored for any instrument or combination of instruments—a nice touch. There’s actually published sheet music in front of the performer(s), which needs to be there to complete the effect, even if it really isn’t an effect.
As my teacher sat down at the piano, he held the score, an elegant mint-green CF Peters imprint with Cage’s name in big bold letters—right where you’d normally see Bach or Mozart—and the title below. He placed the score on the music stand and slowly opened it to reveal a mostly blank page. All that was there were instructions for the performer(s) not to play for the entire duration of the three-movement piece: 4’33”.
This was a solo piano nonperformance. I believe he turned the page at the appropriate time for each movement. He used a stopwatch. All of his motions were slow and elegant. If you’re not going to play, do it with style.
It’s funny as a kind of theater, but there is a deeper point: Where else in a public forum are you compelled to simply be quiet and listen for that long—I mean besides in a Zen monastery? At most, you get a 10- or 15-second moment of silence to acknowledge the death of a sports figure at a game. Four and a half minutes of listening to nothing, which is not really nothing, is radical in our culture.
Cage wanted us to experience everything as music. The coughs, the cars driving by, the shuffling of feet, and most of all, the uncomfortable squirming in the seats. He was saying—like the spatial vacuum where the apparent nothingness contains an infinite roiling mass of potential particles—there is infinite potential music within the silences in our lives. As in the void, the very randomness of the chance interactions held within it the potential to create something entirely new. Cage was looking for a kind of radical acceptance of all that potential. Of course, it’s very much a Zen idea . . . Cage was a practicing Zen Buddhist.
Even after my epiphany in the Madison church, I stand by my initial impression of Cage as a decomposer. But he was a decomposer in the positive sense. Somebody needed to tear down the walls of a Western art music tradition, which had become tendentious, pretentious, non-spontaneous, and just plain dull. He was the playful force in modern music, somehow both gentle and provocative. His music and ideas directly or indirectly influenced everyone from Radiohead to John Coltrane and the entire Minimalist movement.
He influenced me too, but this isn’t that story. This isn’t the story of John Cage deconstructing. It’s the story of my own struggle to rebuild—not the old structures, but new structures out of the remnants of the shattered traditions I inherited. And it is the story of how I was constructed in the process.
“Thank you . . . thank you . . . thanks,” says the old bluesman. He turns further and further away from his audience with each fading iteration of reluctantly offered thanks.
He pauses for too long after the applause dies down, staring off to stage right where there’s nothing to see but three dented and duct-taped mic stands, leaning up against a similarly dented black wall. The wall is covered with scratched-out white graffiti—messages from bands who happily moved on from this dive.
He holds both his stare and his resentment for another five seconds, just to make sure the crowd is that much more uncomfortable, then turns back to introduce the next tune.
“We’re going to play a little tune I call After the Beginning, Before the End. And by beginning, I’m referring to the very beginning—of the universe. So I guess it’s really not such a little tune. You know me. I like to think and play big.” He laughs, turning around to see if his band is laughing with him. Like most sidemen, they only pay attention when they have to and are annoyed by this sudden intrusion into the moment of non-attentiveness, which is part of their between-song routine. But he pays them well, so they offer obligatory chuckles.
The old bluesman is none other than the notorious, semi-reclusive, often peerless, though chronically erratic, Jehoshaphat L’BoDean—sur la Montagne, as the French dubbed him. Or, The Mountain, as we call him in the States. He’s the scion of the expatriate, African-American, astrophysicist John Bollard Dean and the French novelist, Adele Lecla. As is well known, L’BoDean playfully concatenated parts of their names to create his own last name. And he is, of course, the creator and sole practitioner of the avant-blues genre, one that combines deep Delta blues with an assortment of 20th century modernist techniques, from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism to Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics.
Granted, he’s fiction. I made him up so I would have someone to argue with in this creative nonfiction musical memoir. But I do like the idea of avant-blues. Someone should consider inventing it. Though, I hasten to add that he’s not entirely made up—he’s partially based on a few actual people in my life who, for various reasons, need to be fictionalized. And he’s not the only one. Other than my family, myself, and various well-known people, everyone who appears in this memoir has undergone a name-change operation.
The Mountain is performing here for a mostly white, upscale, but self-consciously dressed-down, suburban audience that he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like them because he suspects they like him for the wrong reasons. The venue is Orphans, a long-shuttered club on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The time, though, is sometime around now. He has just completed the opening number of his first set, The Water is Melting—a swampy, asymmetrical Delta blues that somehow recalls Debussy’s whole-tone piano prelude, punctuated by a smattering of Anton Webern’s serial pointillism.
“However, before we perform it,” he continues, “to create the correct ambience for the tune, let’s have a moment of silence, yes?” He pauses, looks around, lets his words sink in. “A moment of silence to commemorate, as it were, the beginning of our one and only universe and its embryonic spark—the ineptly named Big Bang—which, as you’re no doubt aware, was completely silent.”
The Mountain’s request—though not the least bit unusual for his shows, which are always part concert, part ontology lecture, and part politics—is met with an anxious sort of silence, disturbed only by some inchoate rumblings: the high-pitched squeak of a woman’s truncated laugh, a young man’s mid-register clearing of the throat, the oy and swallowed gevalt of a middle-aged guy sitting alone at the bar.
He removes the guitar from around his neck, places it on the stand to his right, then removes his hat, holding it to his chest as he lowers his head and closes his eyes—the very picture of commemorative stillness.
But something is stirring within the stillness. An infinite, potential music is roiling about, trying to find its way into the world. The silence deafening . . .
Middle C is Not
I’m sitting at a piano somewhere in 1965, trying to decide what to play.
I’m four years old. How am I supposed to know what to play? For that matter, how are you ever supposed to know?
The piano bench beneath me is covered with a striped green-and-white fabric, material left over from the couch in the den. The Steinway upright in front of me is a sober dark brown. My legs don’t come close to touching the ground—using the pedals is out of the question.
I align myself with the middle of the piano, middle C. Technically, middle C is not the true center of the keyboard—there are more notes to the right than to the left. That fact will bother me for years to come. Nevertheless, aligning myself with that note is one of the rituals I adhere to prior to playing.
The piano sits on the white-carpeted living room floor of apartment 8W, our three-bedroom condo on West Wellington Avenue in Chicago. The living room, like the elegant prewar building itself, is fairly formal, though not forbidding. It is, in any case, rarely touched by the grimy little hands of kids like me. We almost never play in here. In fact, I’m usually not in here at all unless there’s company and my presence is required.
At those times, I’m likely to be sporting a blue blazer and clip-on tie, sitting uncomfortably among extended family or my mom’s budding, left-wing political circle. But because the far southwest corner of the living room—abutting the foyer and as far away from the formal furniture as possible—is the only viable place in the apartment to place a piano, it sits there. Isolated, somewhat out of place. And I sit there with it.
My fingers hover silently over the keys. I won’t play anything until I figure where they’re supposed to go.
* * *
Knowing where you’re supposed to go. Knowing what you’re supposed to play. The next step, the next note. It’s a matter of commitment to a direction. But which direction? The possibilities are infinite, of course. And each of the directions has its own set of lifelines with streams and tributaries that have their own set of lifelines. Ad infinitum.
Am I talking about music or life here? It doesn’t matter. The two were inseparable. Me. The piano. Our apartment building. The neighborhood. A connected sense of isolation and possibilities.
The building was a block west of Sheridan Road—with its settled and sedate high-rises—and a block east of Broadway, with its rough-and-tumble, inner-city, low-rise storefronts. The building sat between the two worlds, seemingly taking on elements of both. Most of its occupants were young families, comfortable, but not quite settled. Striving, perhaps for a chance at the more settled wealth to the east, but not too far removed from the struggles to the west.
A semicircular driveway led to the front entrance, covered by a green canvas canopy. It wasn’t quite high-end, but all about class on a budget.
I still can see the uniformed doorman standing in the dark-green-and-gold-marbled lobby. He’d greet my family by name and with a smile. Then, with a quickly raised eyebrow and an outstretched arm, he’d hand us off to the elevator man, who’d be sitting slightly stooped on his stool in the elevator, reading the sports section of the Tribune. He’d look up and hastily come to life—closing the paper, stepping out to the side of the elevator, and holding out his arm to welcome us. Then he’d close the door and accordion safety gate, and turn the heavy, black iron crank. We were on our way.
* * *
I begin with a single note, middle C: the root, the tonic. Home. (Om?)
“Hold on, please,” he says, arriving at our floor and adjusting the elevator until its floor is aligned with the foyer floor.
I’m always rooting for the guy to get it right on the first try. A few master operators manage a perfectly aligned stop on the first try. Others struggle, inching up and down a few times before nailing it. Then there are the younger guys or the building super who fills in when the elevator pros are on break—they settle for leaving a half-inch gap before opening the doors to let us out.
With only one note, there is no music—just pure sound. Nevertheless, it’s a sound that has a kind of physical force born of its willful perturbation of air, which had been content to be left alone, or at most, jostled by seemingly random disturbances. This is the first, and maybe the only, necessary rule of making music: disturb the air, make it move. Purposely make it dance.
Our Lakeview East neighborhood on the Near North Side is—like most Chicago neighborhoods in 1965—pre-gentrified. It varies not so much from block to block, as from building to building. Our building is one of the nice ones, with a large fenced-in playground where the resident kids congregate. Several of them are my friends. More than a few of us go to the same nearby private school.
The apartment building is like our dorm. We freely hop around between the units and take the inner back stairs to avoid long waits for the elevator. The back doors are often left unlocked. My mom will eventually grow tired of the chumminess.
In an unfinished section of the playground, we throw rubber balls against the windowless west brick wall of the building—a thirteen-story handball court. We hang out at each other’s apartments. A kid on the second floor puts saccharin in his Coke because he claims it’s not sweet enough by itself. He’ll grow up to be the producer of a local foodie TV show.
A girl in my grade at school has more conservative, stricter parents and is never let out of her fourth-floor apartment without parental supervision—even to play in the playground. We are occasionally allowed to visit her apartment, but she’s not allowed in ours. There’s a stiff formality at her apartment that’s lacking in the others. She’ll grow up to be a psychotherapist.
Maybe, I think, her parents don’t like Jews. Or maybe they are Jews—the older, more conservative German stock that turn up their noses at their tougher, unrefined Eastern European cousins. Not that I or my three siblings, as third-generation American Jews, are particularly tough. Mostly we’ve gone soft by the third generation, but we’re still loud and argumentative—the last vestiges of shtetl life.
There are several young, upwardly mobile, secular-liberal, third-generation Russian/Ukrainian Jewish families in our building. All of us are completely assimilated. Being Jewish means we celebrate Chanukah instead of Christmas.
From the starting point of a single note, there are infinite possibilities. I can go anywhere. But infinity must be constrained. To move beyond the realm of sound—from potential music into actual music—a choice has to be made. I have to go somewhere, but I’m not prepared to travel very far. I need to get my bearings first. So for the second note, I settle for a tentative step upward to the 2nd degree of the scale. Still not really music, but at least there is progression, both in rhythmic time and in sonic space.
Tentatively, in groups of three or more—because boys always travel in groups of three or more—we venture out beyond the confines of the building and its connected premises: playground, parking lot, and fallout shelter adjacent to the playground. At first, we just hang out on the sidewalk in front of the building, where the doorman can keep an eye on us . . . at our parents’ request.
This particular day, it’s saccharin-loving Danny from the second floor, Jack (his younger brother), David (my older brother), and me.
“I can say a bad word,” Danny says as we restlessly dance around in front of the building, keeping our eyes on the doorman because we want him to see how cool we are out here by ourselves.
“What bad word?” I ask.
“Fuck. And shit.”
Whoa! I’d heard about those words—maybe even heard them spoken inadvertently by passing adults. But this was the first time I’d heard someone my age conjure them up out of thin air. I’m not really ready for it and look away, trying to pretend I didn’t hear anything.
“I’ll bet you can’t say it, Peter.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I can say it.”
“Say it then.”
“Fuck. Or start with shit. That’s easier.”
“Sh . . . ”
“Fuck, shit, fuck shit . . . ”
“Cut it out, Danny,” my brother says. “The doorman will hear you.”
“He’s inside. Anyway, we should kick somebody’s butt.”
“I don’t want to,” Jack whines.
“Of course, you don’t. You’re a snot-nosed baby.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Come on Danny, leave him alone,” I say. “Let’s go to the drugstore.”
“I don’t have any money,” he says. “But, hey, we can beat someone up and take their money.”
“I don’t know, what if they beat us up first?” says Jack.
Ignoring his brother, Danny adds, “Or . . . or . . . oh, this will be great! We can make a gate across the sidewalk and charge people to get by.”
“How we gonna build a gate?” I ask.
“We don’t build a gate, you dummy. We are the gate.” He spreads his arms out wide. “We stand side to side, hold hands like this, and block the way. Except I’m not touching Jack’s snotty booger hands. Then we charge people to get by.”
David laughs at him. “Nobody’s paying a quarter to get by. They’ll probably beat us up. Maybe a nickel.”
“Fine, a dime. We split it four ways, except I get extra since I thought of it.” He lines us up side by side, interlocking our fingers. It’s a wide sidewalk though—and we’re too small to stretch across it.
“People can just go around, you idiot,” my brother says.
“Spread your legs wider,” Danny says. We do, but Jack loses his balance and falls over. “We need more people.”
“I think Andy’s in the playground. I’ll get him.” I return with him and his older sister, Debby.
“You guys are stupid. I should tell,” she says.
“You better not tell.” Danny gives her a look.
“Okay, but you guys are still stupid.” With that, she runs off.
We form our line and wait for the first victim. A big, gruff guy smoking a cigarette starts coming down the street toward us. We aren’t as stupid as Debby thought—we quickly move out of his way.
“The hell you guys doin’?” he laughs, looking back at us.
We laugh back at him.
“Fuck,” Danny says, standing tough.
“Stop saying that.” His brother rolls his eyes.
An old lady—dressed in a dark wool coat and babushka hat—starts walking our way.
“Now that’s more like it.” Danny smiles and gives us a nod, signaling us to reform the gate.
We block her way. “Ten cents to get by the tollbooth, miss,” Danny says.
She stops, looks at us, and smiles. “Well, you little boys are so cute, I’ll give you a dime each!” She fishes the coins out of her purse.
“Thanks, miss!” Turning toward us, Danny smirks. “You see?”
We continue the process for ten minutes—moving out of the way for younger women or any guy, only charging old ladies. Some negotiate down to a nickel, but all of them think we’re pretty cute and pay up.
But we push our luck. A severe-looking lady with a cane comes toward us, loudly muttering to herself. A part of me knows we should stop right there, let her go by, and head for the drugstore, satisfied with our 15-minute earnings.
On the flip side, we’re on a roll—and admittedly, blinded by our unexpected success. I look askance at Danny, thinking the lady looks a bit crazy. But we’re all committed now.
“Ten cents to get by, miss!” we yell in unison, emboldened by our earnings.
She stops, stares at each of us, then scowls.
“Who do you little shits think you are? I’m going to tell your mommies!” She looks toward the building and sees the doorman, who has been studiously ignoring us, through the glass doors. “Doorman! Doorman!”
He comes out, calmly, deferentially. “Yes, miss?”
“These little devils are trying to extort money from me just to walk down this street. I want you to tell their mommies.” She breaks through our line, and Jack falls over.
The doorman shakes his head at us.
“You boys . . . ” He walks back inside.
“Fuck,” I sigh.
Gaining confidence after the initial step forward, I’m ready to venture further afield from the safety of the root. So for the third note, I jump upward, the interval of a 6th, landing on the 7th degree of the scale.
There are more school friends in various buildings and private homes down and around the block. We head east down Wellington toward Sheridan. A shy but proud girl from my class lives in the building around the corner. We play over there occasionally, but she’s too serious, never laughs at our gross boy jokes about gassers and wieners. She’ll grow up to be a lesbian environmentalist.
More often, we head west, turn right on Pine Grove, the street abutting our building’s parking lot. We make a quick stop at the tiny house of another kid from our class—a quiet, thoughtful boy, who is protective of his angry mother. She’s always upstairs in her bedroom with the lights off, eyes covered with a cold wet cloth. He says she has chronic migraines, whatever those are.
“Jeffrey! Get me a damn glass of ice water!” she yells down to him. We’re embarrassed, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Whatever she needs, he runs to get it. He just rolls with it. He’ll grow up to be a physician.
We stretch the boundaries 10, 20, 50 feet at a time. By the time I’m five, we work our way toward Broadway and its rougher elements.
I jumped too high, too soon. I immediately take a step downward to the 6th degree, taken aback, maybe somewhat embarrassed by my own boldness. Regardless, I’ve now taken the first steps toward making music with a completed motif—the germ of a musical idea. With each additional note, the infinite possibilities narrow, becoming more and more constrained as the accumulation of notes begins to add up to something with purpose. Infinity constrained is still infinity, but somehow more limited. With just four notes, I’ve made a declaration of intent that will reverberate throughout the rest of the piece, limiting its possibilities. A direction has been set. I can no longer go just anywhere.
Our destination is the drugstore on the northeast corner of Broadway and Wellington, where we will steal candy and run back home. Straight to the drugstore, pilfer some candy, straight back home. Always in groups of three or more. Don’t turn right on Broadway. Don’t go north.
“To have any sort of clue about what you should be playing, you need to know who you are, where you came from.”
I’m at the bar, on the receiving end of what promises to be a lecture by L’Bodean. He has just completed his first set at Orphans, which was, in spite (or because) of his resentment towards his audience, ferocious. Richie Havens cover of Here Comes the Sun is playing in the speaker over my head. I always liked his version better than the Beatles’; it has an aggression that is willing rather than waiting for the damn sun to come along.
We’re sitting in the dimly lit corner by the cash register. There is no green room here, and L’BoDean wants to be as far away from the action as possible as he awaits the start of his second set, hoping at all costs to avoid his fans. He doesn’t drink anymore, and doesn’t like bars, so he sipping a juice concoction of his own making. I do drink, am nursing an Amstel light, but I also don’t like bars. I prefer to drink alone. He also doesn’t like second sets and may find a way to get out of this one.
“Hmm?”, I offer cynically, “So because I came from the North side of Chicago, near the lake, from an upper-middle class Jewish-American stock, I should be playing what? Watered down Klezmer?”
“Very funny, smart ass. Although, yeah, maybe you should. Actually, don’t.” He laughs.
“Trust me, I won’t. But my point is, who we are, where we came from are highly fungible things. Nebulous. Always changing. I mean, my ancestors came from Odessa in the Ukraine, settled in Omaha three generations ago, headed to Chicago a generation ago. Is there something in my musical DNA left over from Odessa? From Nebraska? I don’t think so. Hell, I’m not even convinced there’s anything from Chicago. No, I take that back: I’m convinced there is almost nothing from Chicago if we’re just talking musical styles. I never even listened to Chicago blues, don’t even think about it when I’m playing blues. My blues, as far as I can tell (and I’m not altogether sure I can tell) comes from the Delta, and Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, plus a little black gospel. The gospel may have come from Chicago, but I’ve never been in a black church that I can remember. I’ve never been to Mississippi, never remotely experienced what the folks who first made that music experienced…And yet…”
“And yet,” he offers, “you feel this music in your bones. Right? Of course you do. It was the musical food you ate, that you absorbed into your bloodstream. It became a part of your DNA because you needed it to survive. It is you. Or it became you over time. You didn’t need Chicago blues to survive, so you didn’t eat it. So, yeah, you need to know who you are, but when I say where you come from, I’m not talking about the geography, I’m talking about soul; where your musical soul came from.
“OK, but how much of yourself is really yourself vs. that which you borrowed from others? I mean, sometimes I’m improvising something, and I know what I’m playing is influenced by McCoy Tyner, but it’s coming through the filter of my own experience. But it’s hard to tell sometimes if I’m mimicking or creating.”
“What you’re talking about are dialogs with history.” He checks his watch, and peaks over his shoulder towards the stage. Seats are rapidly filling in for the second set, which he’ll now have to play. “Damn,” he mutters, and then turns back to me. “Or dialogs with your heroes.”
“Dialogs? Talking to the past?”
“Sometimes arguing.” He does a couple of shoulder rolls, and tilts his neck from side to side to work out the kinks, going through the various preparations to steel himself for another round. Like a lot of performers, he both loves and hates performing: Loves it once he’s doing it, hates the idea of doing it, knowing the physical and psychological toll that the both the preparation and aftermath will take on his body and spirit.
“Listen to any great musician when they’re younger. You can hear their big influences, but then you hear moments of their own ideas struggling to be heard in the context of the musical world created by their forebears. You hear the Haydn in early Beethoven, the Bird in early Coltrane.” He turns back to me. “And the thing is this: it’s in those moments, where you’re simultaneously mimicking and fighting off your heroes that you forge your own identity—your sound. It’s a conversation, an argument with history. When you’re first learning your craft, you accept your heroes’ ideas at face value, but then you build up the confidence to challenge them. If you just take what they give you, never question it, you become subsumed in their personalities.”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “That is the problem in being faced overwhelming greatness: it can feel like a prison that keeps you from moving on.”
“And, unfortunately, too many very good, but not great, players do get sucked in to the minds of their heroes and can never find their way out. Those players—or composers—they never really find their voices.”
“Like all the sax players who could never really get beyond Coltrane…”
“Or: composers—like you—who could never get over Beethoven.” He laughs.
“Are you kidding me?That’s ridiculous! I’m not trapped in Beethoven’s world.”
“I didn’t say that,” he says, laughing at my insecurity. “I just said you were a composer. And that composers in general had a hard time getting beyond Beethoven. Not you in particular.”
“Yeah, whatever.” I look away.
“Anyway, the point is that we’re all a part of a long running musical collective, a tradition, or multiple traditions. But we’re also individuals within those communities. It’s your job as an artist to find and assert your voice within that larger context. Sort of like politics in that way.”
“No it’s not.”
“No it’s not, not really” he offers. “Though the business of music--that cesspool of greed and gangsterism—is all politics, unfortunately. Can’t get away from it. You can only hide in your musical monastery for so long, before reality will force you out, force you to confront the world as it is, not how you want it to be.” He stands up. “And unfortunately, I am forced to confront the bullshit reality of my second set.”
“So wait…” I’m convinced he is talking about me, and my tendency to go into self-imposed exile for extended periods. “Are you talking about—“
“I’m just talking,” he waves me off dismissively, and heads toward the stage. “You can finish my drink,” he says over his shoulder
“OK… thanks?” I say.
He turns back, suddenly, and says quietly, “But remember.”
“What?” I’m thinking he’s going to warn me about the drink.
“Remember that no matter what you’re doing— finding your voice within the community, and what not—you’re ultimately doing just one thing.”
“And that is…?” .
“You’re trying to find the source,” he laughs, and continues toward the stage.
“The source of what?” I yell back.
He doesn’t even bother turning back, just shakes his head, limps towards the stage and yells,“The source, man. The got damn source. Sheeiiiit.”
“No funny business, boys,” says a white-coated pharmacist, the man behind the counter. He smiles. “Or I’ll tell your parents.”
We’re allowed to explore the one square block of the neighborhood surrounding the apartment building without parental supervision. The limit to our peregrinations is the corner drugstore—the drugstore at the end of the world, where time and space cease. There, the apparent gatekeeper to the next world watches over us warily. But for the sake of his merchandise, not warily enough.
The drugstore is tiny. A front aisle—the counter with a register runs the length of it. All the pharmaceutical paraphernalia is along the wall. Then, there’s a back aisle.
The whole place is maybe 600 square feet tops. Candy and magazines are in the front aisle with over-the-counter medicines on the side of the register, toiletries on the opposite side. In the darker, more-hidden back aisle, there are toys. Bins of cheap plastic cowboys and Indians, toy cars, and rubber balls.
The four of us—Danny, Jack, David, and me—converge there, half-heartedly rifling through the cowboys and Indians, squeezing the rubber balls, then briefly bouncing them to test their worthiness for our throw-the-ball-against-the-building-wall game. But we’d only made about a dollar with our phantom tollbooth, and I don’t really want any of this junk anyway.
Danny signals for us to spread out. We’re too tightly packed in one corner at the back of the aisle, and the pharmacist keeps eyeing us.
“Peter,” Danny whispers. “You and Jack go to the front aisle. Pretend like you want some baseball cards or something.”
“But I do want some baseball cards,” I say too loudly. “I need to complete my Cub—”
“Just go! Both of you. I need some cowboys for my collection.” He looks up to see if the pharmacist is watching before pocketing a few cowboys.
Jack and I head to the front aisle. I go to the baseball cards, Jack to the candy.
All we have to do is wait until he looks down to fulfill a prescription or looks up to the cash register to ring a sale. Then we pounce. Snickers bars, Milky Ways, Juicy Fruit gum—and my personal favorite—baseball cards with the enclosed stale pink rectangle of cardboard-like bubble gum.
* * *
Those baseball cards were always the hardest to pilfer because they were by the register.
That’s not to say we never paid for stuff. We did. Plenty. After all, we had to keep up the front of being law-abiding, baseball-card-collecting five-to-seven-year-olds. But that ended up creating a problem. My small weekly allowance wasn’t enough to cover the cost of my growing collection. And the Chicago Cubs of the mid-late 1960s were my heroes. I wanted the complete team—and only had the Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams cards. Try as I might, I couldn’t nab the Ferguson Jenkins, their star pitcher.
Because of our limited success extorting dimes from old ladies passing through our phantom tollbooth, I had to find other means to fund my cause. And I did. I’d buy three and four packs of baseball cards—I liked to chew on four of those cardboard bubblegum sticks at a time—then steal some candy. It seemed like a fair tradeoff.
Of course, the ruse could last for only so long before we eventually were caught. The pharmacist, as promised, did tell our parents, who made us vow to behave. He reluctantly let us back in the store. We behaved for a while before starting up again . . . but more discreetly.
Our kleptomania—fueled as much by the thrill of it as by the desire to build baseball card collections and the like—was limited to the drugstore. Luckily for local merchants, there weren’t many other opportunities within our limited boundaries. There wasn’t any commercial activity on Sheridan Road at all, save for a flower shop and the little barber shop in the basement of one of those sedate high-rises.
My dad would take my brother and me to the barber shop for our once-a-month trim by Sal, Phil, Joe, or some other monosyllabically named guy. The barber, his name embroidered in cursive on his sky blue jacket, would lift us up to the booster seat atop his chair and trim the two of us in the time it took another guy to take care of my dad. We’d receive a lollipop for our troubles. No need—or opportunity—to steal candy there.
Broadway—with its seemingly endless commercial activity—was another story. It was the verboten land. The land of Uptown, where bands of Puerto Ricans from the rougher uptown neighborhoods roamed. They seemed to mark their east-west and north-south boundaries on the corner of our drugstore. Broadway suddenly materialized like a random river branch out of Clark Street, just three blocks south of us.
Unlike its New York City namesake, it never became all that broad. It wended its way up north, as if trying to reconnect to its source—but instead, somewhat ironically, merged and disappeared into Sheridan Road, some six miles uptown.
Was this the street grid’s way of telling me that if I traveled far enough, the twin poles of my world—privilege to the east, struggle to the west—would eventually merge into some kind of blissful perfection?
* * *
Too soon to tell. For now, the admonition remains: We’re allowed to go up to Broadway and enter the corner drugstore, with its corner-facing entrance, but not to walk down the street itself.
The six of us—my parents, three siblings, and me—are in the elevator, heading up to my grandparents’ apartment on North State Street. We kids are hopping around, excited. Or at least I am. Amy and David, my older siblings, are trying not to act too excited. Year-and-a-half-old Jane is sucking her thumb, holding her fading blue blankie over her elbow.
“Is Grandma and Grandpa gonna give us a treat?” I ask.
“Peterrrrr.” Amy, the mature one at six, rolls her eyes and shakes her head at my lack of propriety. Well, at least I didn’t say it directly in front of my grandparents. David, the second oldest at five, just snarls and jabs me in the side with his elbow.
“Ow! You stupid pee pee head!”
Jane takes her thumb from her mouth, looks up at David like he’s a giant, then replaces the thumb and looks down.
“Are Grandma and Grandpa—not is,” my mother says. “And we’re not visiting your grandparents for treats. We’re visiting because they’re your grandparents, and they love to see you.”
“Yeah, still,” I say, pouting. I love my grandparents, but have no problem with extracting some loot as a kind of payment for the expression of that love.
As we arrive at their floor and step out of the elevator, my grandparents are already standing in their open doorway, practically pushing each other to get first dibs on their grandchildren.
We tumble into the apartment, getting our bearings. This is my first time here—they’ve just moved in. It’s a jumble of stilted, plastic-covered furniture, abstract Israeli artwork, and the smell of my grandmother’s mushroom-and-barley soup.
In the corner of the foyer, there is this grayish electric organ.
What’s that doing here? I’ve seen keyboards before, but never played one. Even at three-and-a-half, I feel an odd magnetic pull to this symmetrical arrangement of black and white keys, as if they contain some hidden cosmic power.
I walk over to the attached bench and climb up.
“Can I play that?”
“Peter,” my dad says flatly. “Ask first before jumping all over everything.”
“He did ask, Paul,” my grandma says. “And it’s fine. Nobody else is going to play that thing.”
My fingers hover over the keyboard. I notice the pattern of keys, the groupings of two and three black keys, surrounded by a sea of white. I try pressing down a bunch of black keys with my flattened hands. The sound of the notes of the pentatonic scale is pleasing—but clustered together in a chord like that, also a bit jarring. I try playing them one at a time and am thrilled by the logic of the flow of sounds.
With no prior warning that I could do anything of the kind, I start playing the organ.
“That’s very good, Peter,” my dad says, impressed and surprised.
“Well, well, well. The boy can play.” My grandpa pats me on the back. “He’s a little Irving Berlin.”
“Or Mozart!” my grandma adds.
“Oh, come on, Mom,” my mother scoffs. “Don’t overdo it.”
Just a month or two later, this amazing display of genius will inspire them to trade in that barely used organ in my grandparents’ apartment for a new Steinway upright piano in ours.
Six months after that, I would be sitting in our semi-formal living room trying to figure out what to play.
* * *
This would be the founding event of my musical story. And what a story it was. Too bad it’s apparently not true—at least according to my parents.
Not only do they have no memory of the trade-in, but they are quite sure there wasn’t an organ in my grandparents’ apartment to begin with. And why would there be? My maternal grandparents weren’t overtly musical people. They almost never spoke of music. I can’t even recall them ever playing a record.
But I swear—with some embellishments accruing over time—this happened. I just walked in there and started playing. It’s either my first memory or the foundational brick in the building of my self-mythology. Or it’s both.
Both of my grandparents died from Alzheimer’s years ago, so it’s really my memory against my parents’. The thing is, they don’t remember how the piano came to sit in our living room at all. Maybe, they argue, my older sister, Amy, had expressed an interest in playing, and they bought it for her. She did end up starting lessons before me. I could ask Amy, I suppose. Maybe she remembers, but I’m not asking.
The whole thing may be a dream. I’ve been having musical dreams for years—dreams where I hear music that I can’t yet play or don’t know how to write. Such visions have often acted as inspirations in my development as composer and player. So yes, maybe this was one of those. My foundational musical dream.
Because as I said, my maternal grandparents—Philip and Ethel Klutznick—though exceptionally bright and gifted people, weren’t deeply or even casually cultured. It’s not that they were unmusical—they just didn’t seem to have time for it, period.
He was a brilliant and successful statesman and developer with an expertise in urban development, serving every Democratic president between Roosevelt and Carter. His political work—all non-elected positions—included Federal Housing Commissioner under FDR, Ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council under Kennedy, and Secretary of Commerce under Jimmy Carter.
My grandfather and his partners developed what was, in effect, the first affordable postwar suburb for returning GIs, Park Forest, outside of Chicago.
He also was a prominent leader in the global Jewish community, serving as president of both B’nai B’rith and the World Jewish Congress. In 1985, Rabbi Seymour Siegel—an architect of Conservative Jewish theology and a once-director of the US Holocaust Memorial Council—said this of my grandfather: “He is considered by many to be the leading Jew in the US.”
My grandmother wasn’t the proverbial power behind the throne—she had no interest in power, nor a throne. What she had was a sly, and occasionally biting, sense of humor, used like a pin to burst the balloon of my grandfather’s periodic pomposity.
“Listen, Big Shot, you may dine with presidents . . . but I’m not all that impressed. You’re still Phil to me.” She loved to tease him and downplay his brilliance and wealth—all done with humor and love. Now that I think of it, she may have been the one who taught me to marry someone who loves me—not someone who is in awe of me.
Both of my grandparents were smart, funny, and—in spite of their wealth—completely unpretentious people. I loved them. The only time I ever heard them discuss music was in regard to my career.
My grandfather did his best to help me out. He was, in general, very well connected and introduced me to anyone he knew who was even tangentially involved with the music business. He took me to lunch with the great violinist Isaac Stern. And both my grandfather and grandmother took me to dinner with Liberace, his lover, and his manager. Of course, being the kind of artist I was—and am—there was no way any of those people could do a thing for me. And that is both the point . . . and beside the point.
They tried to help, and that’s all that matters. But in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t going to help. They had no sense of what my music was about because they weren’t attuned to my music, let alone any music of our time.
And that brings me back to the organ. Did my grandmother, who would have been in her mid-fifties in 1964, have a mid-life crisis and buy an organ so she could learn some Irving Berlin tunes—the one composer, I would later learn, she and my grandfather loved? I doubt it. But I still don’t think it was a dream . . .
A better explanation would be their youngest son, my Uncle Sam, who would have been 17 at the time and still living at home. He was artistically inclined, later wrote plays, became a big fan of Sondheim, lived in NYC and Paris, and hung out with artsy folks. Perhaps he took up the organ for a while, then gave it up. He was always a bit of a dilettante.
And come to think of it, after reflecting on that fateful day, I can now see Sam sauntering in from his room in the back when he heard me play.
“As far as I’m concerned, Peter can have the organ. I’m bored with it.” He shrugs his shoulders, then indifferently heads back to his room.
Yes, I’m now convinced. It did happen that way. Unfortunately, Sam has passed, so I can’t verify it. Maybe some of his older brothers remember. I could ask them, but they weren’t living at home back then. And the real truth is, I really don’t want to know.
There may be no good reason for that organ to be there, other than my distinct memory of it being there. My need for it to be there. There had to have been some situation where I exhibited enough musical talent to inspire my parents to bring a piano into our home. I mean, neither of them played, nor had any intention of playing.
And I’m not inclined to believe their idle speculation that they may have purchased it for Amy, who ended up being a journalist and editor. That simply doesn’t work as my founding myth.
So the Uncle Sam story will just have to do. People—like religions and nations—need founding myths to help explain and justify (as much to themselves as to others) who they are, where they came from, and why they do what they do.
The organ story is the founding myth of my musical story.
Chicago was very territorial in the 1960s, with the boundaries of little nation-states marked by major business boulevards. Cross to the wrong side, and you were asking for trouble. The ethnic tribes on either side’s boundary line—Poles, Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese, Ukrainians, African-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, etc.—generally didn’t get along.
As Mike Royko said in his 1971 book Boss, “With their tote bags, the immigrants brought along all their old prejudices and immediately picked up some new ones. An Irishman who came here hating only the Englishmen and Irish Protestants soon hated the Poles, Italians, and blacks. A Pole who was free arrived hating only Jews and Russians, but soon learned to hate the Irish, Italians, and the blacks.”
Frozen prejudices had yet to find their way into the melting pot.
We, of course, didn’t know any of this as little kids—knew nothing of the ethnic divisions, rivalries, histories, and so on. We just knew our little world, whose end was the border of their world.
Their world was a vast unknown that would eventually have to be explored. But we would explore with blinders because we knew nothing of the people in that world. We didn’t know that by 1960, Puerto Ricans—who immigrated to Chicago in large numbers beginning in the late 1940s—had established thriving communities in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, our neighborhood. We were ignorant of the fact that by the mid-1960s, they were being displaced from those very neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal, programs that were part of a broader sweep of renewal and displacement taking place along the lakefront.
We could sense the wall of anger and resentment running up Broadway. Its context hidden behind a veil of youthful incomprehension.
Randall and Perry are beginning their long and prolific career as class bullies at recess today. I’m about to begin my equally long career as one of their primary targets.
We’re in junior kindergarten, four-year-olds running around the playground with semi-reckless abandon—climbing, swinging, sliding, and most of all, chasing. In the general din produced by all of this activity, the whines and sobs resulting from a few kids being tripped or spat upon are just a few more notes in an extended free improvisation—albeit blues notes.
Randall does the tripping, Perry the pushing, spitting, and humiliating. Randall, already an agile athlete, shuffles his feet like a basketball center playing defense, tripping instead of guarding whoever enters his zone. Foul! Alas, the refs (teachers) are occupied elsewhere, probably zoning out themselves. It’s their recess too.
Perry laughs hysterically as he pushes kids Randall’s way, then spits on them once they’ve fallen. They work in tandem. Perry is the rather sleazy—if a four-year-old can be sleazy—set-up man. Randall is the executor and final arbiter of justice. Randall is the leader, Perry’s enabler. Randall’s an angry kid with issues, but he needs Perry, who is well on his way to psychopathy, to do really dirty work.
Perry also needs Randall because he barely has a mind of his own. Randall’s meanness is a form of acting out. Perry just seems to enjoy being cruel. Together, they have already formed an axis of evil that will continue terrorizing kids at Francis W. Parker School for years to come.
* * *
I was in the first of what would be a fourteen-year stay at Francis W. Parker School—junior kindergarten through twelfth grade—following in the footsteps of my older siblings, two and three years ahead of me. There were only a few acceptable school choices in that part of Chicago. Fortunately, my parents could afford to stay away from the public schools with their poor educational standards, decaying buildings, gangs, and violence.
For years, I would wonder whether or not my years at private school made me soft, incapable of dealing with hard ways of the real world. Perhaps it did, but the case could equally be made that the public schools in that era would have—figuratively or literally—killed me before I even had the chance. In any case, besides Parker, there were only two viable choices: Anshe Emet, a private Jewish school, and Chicago Latin School, another private secular school.
My parents tried Anshe Emet first, sending Amy there for a year, before concluding it was too Jewish. There was never any denial of our Jewish heritage in the house, but we didn’t exactly embrace the culture. With the exception of Passover, Chanukah, and the High Holidays—the big four for secular Jews—our family studiously ignored the religion.
Latin School, on the other hand, was too smug and upper crust. While Parker was certainly small and exclusive, it was also progressive and liberal—therefore, somewhat embarrassed and ashamed of its exclusivity. The more conservative, status-conscious Latin School openly embraced its exclusivity. Latin was more like one of those upper-echelon New York City schools that have debutante balls, ritual hazing, and boys wearing khaki slacks and monogramed blue blazers.
My parents—being progressive, if not guilt-ridden liberals—chose Parker for Amy and the three subsequent Saltzmans. All of our local cousins followed in time.
* * *
And then it begins.
“Peter’s a peter,” Perry sings.
“Shut up, pooper!” I’m nearly in tears. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but am not about to ask.
“He’s just a little baby,” Randall scoffs.
As I stare at Randall, trying to come up with a suitable response, Perry pushes me his way, and Randall trips me.
I fall and scrape my knee. Perry snickers, spits, then sticks out his tongue. After assessing the damage, I get up and angrily attack Perry first. Of the two, he’s smaller—and he just pisses me off more in principle. Our teacher, Miss Akimoto, intervenes as I’m chasing Perry.
“Stop the roughhousing, boys!” As usual, they see the reaction to the deed, not the deed itself—again like refs.
“Perry pushed me, then Randall tripped me,” I’m blubbering, barely coherent. “Then stupid Perry spit on me.”
“No, I didn’t, dumb face,” snarls Perry.
Randall just smirks and cooly says, “We were just playing tag, Miss Akimoto, and Peter tripped.” He’s always so diplomatic and suave that even I’m inclined to believe him.
“No, I didn’t, Miss Akimo—”
“Now, boys,” says Miss Akimoto sweetly—actually, too sweetly for my taste. “I think we all have to learn to be nice. Anyway, recess is over. Let’s go inside and wash off that knee. Randall and Perry, get your coats, and be big boys and tell the others to come in.”
Occasionally, P&R are caught, and a gentle discipline is quietly enacted. But this is a progressive school, so nothing too harsh. There may be a week of relative peace before the hostilities continue.
Miss Akimoto takes me inside, cleans off my knee, and applies a Band-Aid. “You’ll be fine, Peter.”
It’s story time. Everyone grabs their rolled-up rug from the corner, unfurls it on the floor, and sits cross-legged as the teacher reads. After the story, it’s nap time. Though I’m happy for the quiet, the twenty minutes seem interminable. We’re nearing the end of our school day, and I’m ready to go home. Or I’ve got to go to the bathroom, but am afraid to ask permission. I never fall asleep. Instead, I spend the time worrying about kids like P&R. I don’t trust the teachers to protect me. They can’t be everywhere at once. And they only pick up a minute percentage of what goes on, even at this age, with those tiny bodies.
* * *
Parker—or FWP, as we called it—was a small, but ambitious school. It strived to be progressive and inclusive, but that noble aspiration inevitably ran up against the economic realities of its size and private, nonsectarian status. It needed money from parents and alumni to survive. Still, compared to most private schools of the time, it was pretty diverse. About a third of the student body received some form of financial aid. During my fourteen years there, I had black friends from the South and West Sides, Hispanic friends from some of the rougher North Side neighborhoods, and plenty of Italian and Polish friends from the tougher non-black West and South Side neighborhoods. There were plenty of the more-privileged, non-scholarship white friends, but only about half were Jewish.
With about 750 students spread among its fourteen grade levels, Parker could afford to be only so diverse. It needed a decent percentage of its more well-heeled families to pay—and pay well. Many, if not most, of the paying families had multiple kids enrolled. More than a few, including about half of the forty in our original kindergarten class, stayed for the full fourteen years.
Inevitably, over a long period of time and limited amount of space, a kind of elitist conformity congealed, where the wealthier kids stuck with their own kind. For me, the place would begin to emit a certain esprit de smugness. A part of that smugness grew, ironically, out of a sense of pride in not being nearly as smug as those damn Latinites, two miles to the south on Clark Street.
The other thing about spending a long time at such a small school was that—to paraphrase the Cheers theme song—just about everyone knew your name. The longer you stayed, the more your identity became a known quantity and the greater the danger your sense of self, through a Borg-like gravitational pull, could be subsumed into the mass collective.
I, for one, needed a plan for creatively surviving in such a world. Intuitively, I found one. I adapted the strategy of triangulation. That is, working both sides of the aisle. I did this well before the Bill Clinton presidency, I might add.
I could hold my own with the likes of P&R. And I could certainly participate in a limited amount of kiddie cruelty. I made friends with the good kids and the bad kids, the clowns, the nerds, the saints and sinners, winners and losers, adapting my personality as needed without ever giving too much away.
But throughout junior kindergarten, I always felt relieved when the seemingly endless half-day ended at noon and my mom took me home.
urban renewal—began with the ascension of Richard J. Daley to mayor in 1955 and was focused almost exclusively on Lakefront and downtown, the Loop business district. Daley was well into the process of creating the beautiful City by the Lake when we came along. He would do so at the expense of the inner city just to the west, actually creating a beautiful facade along the lake, behind which poverty, disaffection, and displacement lived.
The frenzy of development—aka
It would become clear as we grew up and became more aware of the political dynamics of Chicago—a time when we had become more fully embedded in the facade itself.
We may not have been aware of the political dynamics per se, but we were feeling their vibe, smelling their odors, noticing their varying shades of color. You always feel something before you know it. If you feel it strongly enough, you will get to know it.
What I could feel was that the people inhabiting the borders of our world were angry at us, but I couldn’t feel why. What I could see was that we were light skinned with fresh haircuts and clean clothes. They were darker skinned with greasy hair and mangy clothes. It wasn’t exactly the Sharks versus the Jets material. It was more like people asymmetrically confronting each other at cross purposes—with completely unrelated agendas.
They were angry about being pushed out of their neighborhoods. We were just curious about pushing north. We didn’t know what their anger was about. They did know, but they didn’t know that we didn’t know.
As the third child, there was no pressing need to have all my shit together. That was the job of my older siblings. I could—and did—take my time. I was watching and waiting.
The least athletic of the four of us, but probably the fiercest. As with many firstborns—you didn’t want to cross her.
Though she might beg to differ, Amy, as the standard bearer, seemed to have it all together. In fact, she went through her own ordeals, including a painful end to her first marriage that I witnessed close up. It wasn’t that she actually had it all together, but that she went about life in a way that made it look that way—at least from the vantage point of a hyper-emotional sibling, three years her junior.
The point is, she transitioned from high school to college to career (journalism) to marriage to divorce to happy marriage and kids to more career—all without much visible down time. Seemingly conventional, but I doubt it felt that way from the inside. She, like all of my siblings, is smart and deeply incisive about the world.
The quiet, reflective one—until you got him started. Then you’d have to fight to get a word in edgewise. He feared having his picture taken.
David only had it somewhat together. The shit-togetherness gene in our family mutated and increasingly lost its structure like a frayed hand-me-down as it passed from one sibling to the next. But David still had a usable garment. He would wear it reluctantly as a kid, but eventually, lacking a truly artistic personality, had no choice but to put it on—even if it never quite fit. Until then, when he too settled into a career (low-income housing development) and life with a wife and two kids, he would try out all sorts of craziness. One time in his early 20s, he hitchhiked with a few friends through the Sudan and was nearly killed when the truck they were riding in veered off a bridge into a wadi. Perhaps the only way he could justify living a fairly normal life later on was to occasionally do something nuts in his formative years.
I, on the other hand, didn’t need to do anything that outwardly crazy because I knew I was destined to not live a normal life. Or, put another way, what was going on internally was crazy enough to obviate the need for exterior thrills. I would eventually vie for a degree of outward stability to counteract the inner turmoil. As far as I know, that’s the only way to make the kind of art I make. In any case, the shit-togetherness garment David handed down to me had become a tattered rag. I would flail about for years, trying in vain to make it stay on. It didn’t.
She could be overly dramatic—even hyperbolic in her enthusiasms. A lover of many things. I’d question her taste, though never in regards to her own creative work. Besides, she always loved my music and cared about it more than anyone else in the family—so what if she can occasionally be overenthusiastic?
I handed my younger sister a garment in pieces, and she became a quilter. Literally, at one point, Jane constructed beautiful quilted blankets and wall hangings. But Maker of Quilts may be the apt metaphor for her life and career as a whole because she’s seemingly been on a journey of putting something together out of many disparate parts. Some may see her moving from one career path to another as the sign of a lack of focus. I couldn’t possibly make that judgment, having never walked upon a true career path at all. I suspect that Jane would say that all of her varied paths are connected as a part of a patchwork quilt.
Of course, siblings are always in competition for their parents’ approval. That is, until they’re not. I would hope that we’re at that point now. But there’s no doubt that our personalities have been shaped by those of our parents and our inner desire to please one more than the other. We take on various parental traits that match our own needs. Or we simply take what’s available. There was no way I was going to compete with Amy at her game, so I played another.
Fiercely practical and dedicated to the well-being of his wife and children. Always worried about my career choice, but counterbalanced that with a dry, weary wit. “There’s no way I’m going to remember that. In order to remember that, I’d have to remove something else from my mind to make room for it.”
My dad, Paul Wesley Saltzman, grew up poor in Omaha. He devoted himself to getting the hell out of there as expeditiously as possible—both from home (an unhappy father who died young from cigarettes and heart failure) and from Omaha itself, which he considered dead-end boring. His path to escape involved going to medical school at the University of Nebraska, then heading to Chicago for his internship at Michael Reese Hospital. He would meet my mom in Chicago, though the families knew each other in Omaha.
After an eighteen-month residency in London—my mom, older siblings, and I were there with him—he settled into a long and successful career as a cardiologist on the North Side of Chicago. Eventually, he would move into a more administrative role at a local union medical center, then pretty much retire.
But he never completely retired. Until recently, he was doing a side gig, reading electrocardiograms for the union once a week—a little pocket money. Even today, at 85 with a healthy financial portfolio built on family investments, he teaches upcoming doctors about bedside manner. Maybe it’s just to keep active (he still plays tennis), but I suspect a part of it is that once you escape Omaha, you’re always escaping Omaha. All of his kids inherited his fear of Omaha.
So intent on quickly getting to wherever she was going—you’d think she didn’t notice the details. But she did. And she was always leading the way.
My mom, Bettylu Saltzman (née Klutznick) was also born in Omaha and would no doubt have had the same yearning to escape, if it weren’t for the peripatetic nature of her father’s work, which meant she was almost always leaving anyway. Omaha, Washington, Chicago, Omaha, Washington, Chicago, New York, Washington, Chicago, Washington, Chicago. Or something like that. I’m not even sure she knows. She ended up in Chicago, ensconcing herself in the local political life as an organizer and fundraiser for liberal Democrats. Starting out by helping an independent alderman in his challenge of the Chicago Machine, she would build outward to local, state, and national politics. Her work would culminate in playing a key role in the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008. I suspect all that moving about in her childhood, the lack of a permanent residence and friendships, made my mother strive for a connection outside of herself. Politics, which she clearly inherited from her father, was the way.
So while my dad was motivated by the practical need to make a good living, my mom was motivated by idealism. I’d like to say that I inherited each of my parents’ dominant traits in equal measure, but that would be a lie. I definitely lean toward my mom’s idealism when it comes to career, or lack thereof. I got my sense of humor, including my ability to laugh at my own idealism, from my dad.
* * *
I was neither follower nor leader. When I was young, I just went along, observing, biding my time, waiting to see who I was going to be—a voyeur of my own life. At times, miserable. At times, just fine.
But I was at least mildly troubled, somewhat introverted, and hypersensitive to loud noises. I suffered chronic headaches and stiff necks that had to be checked by pediatricians and child psychologists, to no avail. I wet my bed until I was eleven, had tantrums, and would cry at the drop of a hat if something, for whatever reason, bothered me. I was, in short, kind of a mess—but not irredeemably so.
I was basically just throwing stuff up against the wall, seeing what would stick. It’s not that I was weak, but that I was entirely undecided. I was undecided because there was a key element missing. Music. Without it, I couldn’t make an informed decision.
Music—more importantly, the kind I needed—was a reality entirely outside of my family and circle of friends. Without it, there wasn’t much for me to do but watch and wait.
that street. No grime, gangs, or dilapidated storefronts with broken windows and closed-for-business signs. Nothing but prewar, brick high-rises, along with a few modern interlopers—a set of Mies van der Rohe steel-and-glass high-rises, two blocks north—that bullied their way into the stately quiescence.
Maybe we should just head east and explore Sheridan Road instead. There aren’t any parental warnings about the dangers of
But we’re not allowed to cross major boulevards by ourselves—and with four lanes of fairly heavy traffic, Sheridan Road is a veritable highway. Scary in a different way. And since we’re still under strict orders to limit our explorations to one square block, there’s nothing to do on Sheridan but watch the cars go by.
And so we do. But across the street on the opposite corner of Sheridan and Wellington is something more promising—a two-story complex of cheap, but modish-looking townhouses. Each one is a slightly different color than the other, as if the builder couldn’t decide. They look completely out of place among the high-rises. The people hanging around in front of the homes look interesting too. Young 1960s types, incipient hippies with beards and acoustic guitars. They look like they should be camping out by a river in Colorado or like time travelers who couldn’t quite figure out how to fit into the conservative look of the block.
* * *
If we’d been allowed to cross the street, we might have found some different kinds of trouble to explore over there. Had we been allowed to cross the street and continue walking one block east, we would have been in Lincoln Park with its oak trees, grassy fields, and bike paths.
It’s not like we never went to the park or down Broadway—or even beyond our authorized one square block. It’s just that we always went to those places with our parents. The world can be a completely different place when you’re not under the watchful eye of a protective parent.
Broadway at least, its name notwithstanding, didn’t require breaking the rule of crossing a major boulevard. So we went there . . .