Comfort Station

Keefe writes that he wants to meet up to talk about something. Last time we talked I recorded it. This is about something else. He wants me to collaborate on something with him. Last time he asked I found myself on stage at Constellation painting him and a couple other guys improvising. He doesn’t want art this time; he wants words.

We sit in his practice space on Lake Street talking it out. It’s a little daunting. Three brass instruments and my voice reading. No way I can compete. A saxophone is in the same tonal range as the human voice but far louder. Even with a mic I’d have no chance. Plus: what will I read?

As we sit there I try to picture it in my mind. The venue is Comfort Station. A refurbished former public park bathroom in Logan Square that is now an art space. There are grants given to stage exhibits and performances. Ours will be part of a series called Comfort Music. These euphemisms remind me of terms like ‘Joy Division’.

Whatever my misgivings, I say yes. It’s so rare that anyone invites me to do anything that I can’t refuse for the novelty if nothing else. I’m not a performer and never will be. But a professional musician is asking me to share his stage. It’s flattering and pushes me out of my comfort zone. Worth doing for that reason even if it falls flat on its face. Keefe says it’s an experiment. If it works we can do more.

In the following weeks I keep rolling it around in my mind. I choose a bunch of writing that might work. No through-line or narrative. Maybe not even connected at all. I’m on more solid ground with the visual part. I tell Keefe I’ll design a poster. I make a stencil of the text, then apply the words with markers, pencils, charcoal, and paint to different colored paper, to lithographs and to collages. I make twenty unique pictures, hang up five around Bridgeport and Pilsen and give the other fifteen to Keefe to share with Jeb and Aram.

If you want to see what we come up with, show up on 4/20. No jazz cigarettes but I promise to read at least one poem in Russian.

Listen to my talk with Chicago writer Jasmon Drain and/or Mallory and I discussing both versions of The Fly. When you’re done with those maybe read my review of Catherine Lacey’s The Biography of X.

Migrant Flocks

I wasn’t sure I’d get to design the new Mute Duo record but I’m very glad it happened. I’d done the artwork for their first CD, then the first record, then a tote bag; I had the feeling they were thinking of a different direction. But then Sam, Skyler, and I met up for lunch sometime last summer and they said they wanted me to do it.

They wanted groups of birds and fish. Sam sent me videos of murmurations. I drew sketches in the studio the day they were recording a track with Doug and Andrew playing dueling basses. I made several watercolors of twilight landscapes and schools of fish. I drew clusters of birds, then scanned them in and doubled, tripled, and quadrupled them in Photoshop to form different undulating shapes. I lifted segments of one watercolor and mashed it into another. There were many images for the guys to choose from.

Album design is probably my favorite kind of commission because music is so central to everything I do. Few days go by when I haven’t found something new to listen to. Playing a small part in attracting a listener’s eye to something they should hear is a big reward even if I wasn’t paid to do so. But getting paid is important because it’s a recognition that what I do isn’t a hobby or just for fun. It’s what I do.

Of my collaborations with Skyler and Sam, this feels like the most accomplished one. Maybe because it went through the most permutations or because I wasn’t expecting to get the chance. If they ask me to do the next one, I’ll be happy to do it; if not, I’ll feel honored to’ve done the ones I’ve done. Mute Duo is one of my favorite bands. They would be if I had nothing to do with their album design but the fact that I have definitely doesn’t hurt.

If you’re in Chicago this Thursday, you should be at the Bottle for their record-release. Come say hello. I’ll be the one in the Tall Guy Corner, stage right, sketching.

Speaking of migrants, I recommend the Dardenne brothers’ latest, Tori and Lokita, in this week’s Cine-FILE. It’s a real gut-punch. And The Worst Ones is pretty damn good.

Listen to my talk with artist/dancer/friend Wendy Clinard.

Lisa printed up some more tote bags from the design I made for Tangible. Drop them a line if you want one. Only $10!

I made a little book of bottle drawings. Only 30 of these. When they’re gone, they’re gone.


The last time I drove to Kalamazoo, a couple months ago, I painted a portrait, recorded a talk, went for a walk with a dog through a snow-covered park.

Now I’m driving there again. The portrait I painted wasn’t used but I made other images to decorate the CD, recombined some of the elements for a poster and the world’s tiniest sticker, and now it’s time to celebrate by sharing it with the world.

The travel part of a trip becomes rote once it’s repeated. I’m already familiar with most of this one from the five times I’ve come to pick up books in Wyoming and Saline. I listen to a show about violence interrupters in North Lawndale and East Garfield Park while passing endlessly repeating trees and clusters of signs for identical fast-food, gas, and lodging.

Driving has never been for pleasure but now that I do it so infrequently it serves as a kind of time-out. A chance at what feels like not-life, a kind of sensory depravation. Because I don’t care about what’s out the car windows. This is just a means to an end.

I’m early as usual so I go looking for food. I drive a mile past the venue to a downtown area. There are a couple bars packed with drinkers that I decide against. Then an old-school pizza joint with only pizza and Coca-Cola products on the menu. The oven is by the window and takes up roughly a quarter of the room. It’s not bad. They party-cut the pie the way we do in Chicago.

Then I drive back to the venue and park. It’s an old brick structure with a couple out-buildings. A small factory or warehouse in earlier days; now a recording studio, a listening room, and a rabbit warren of other creative enterprises. I sit in the car and read my book because it’s too soon for the doors to open. I hear the intermittent noises of soundcheck.

Inside a few people are already milling about. The doors to The Clover Room aren’t open just yet. Around the corner is a lobby area with drinks and merch. The CD and stickers and Jessi’s old record is there. Her opener, Kait, sells a beer stein and coffee mug, both labeled BAD MOTHER to a hulking man she doesn’t know. I help her pull the cardboard box of wares from under the coffee table where it has become wedged, so the man can choose from several glaze options. After he walks away she remarks, That doesn’t happen every day. She doesn’t know the guy and he hasn’t listened to a note of her songs yet.

The room is overfilled with listeners and is probably as good a small audience as a musician could ask for. I’ve known Jessi four years but have never seen her play. She’s a natural. Some people look right onstage, others don’t. It’s not necessarily a matter of talent or anything quantifiable. I tell her afterwards she belongs up there.

She invites me to the after-party but I have to get back to Chicago. I have to drop off posters I made, go to an art opening, then another record-release. Full dance-card. The drive back is through whipping rains. There are were tornadoes reported not too far away. I don’t pass any.

I’m glad I got to see Jessi do her thing and to help her get the music out in front of people. Listen/buy here.

Mallory and I talk over Santa Sangre and I write about Edna Ferber’s The Girls.

A limited-edition cassette of a Mute Duo concert at the Bottle just went up for pre-order. That’s a recent collage of mine on the cover.