Jake Blues ( Dan Aykroyd) and Elwood Blues (John Belushi) with their now-iconic Bluesmobile in thew promotional poster the movie “The Blues Brothers.” Courtesy hourz.com
History rewind to early 1980:
I was driving east on Milwaukee I-94, heading home after my slightly nerve-wracking part-time job as a school bus driver (a job to augment free-lancing for The Milwaukee Journal). It was always stressful, yet gratifying, having other people’s precious children in your hands, to deliver them safely to school, or home (even the obligatory brat-distraction every few rides).
My nose had just rid itself of the funky Red Star Yeast smell ever-permeating the 16th street overpass (back then). So, as I now enjoyed the sunny afternoon and approaching lakefront, I noticed a car, with smoke billowing from its hood, speeding down the still-under-construction Lakefront Freeway, which had gone so long uncompleted, it was dubbed “the freeway to nowhere.” Another car followed in hot pursuit.
My God, I thought instantly, two cars headed for the end of the unfinished freeway segment which leads to pure, thin air, high above the lakefront !
In the next moment, I noticed a mobile film camera unit following the cars. Crazy, man!
Then I recalled the news that director John Landis had brought the production company, for his forthcoming big-budget comedy The Blues Brothers, up to Milwaukee from Chicago, where all of the film is ostensibly set, and shot. However, for a climactic chase scene, Landis needed an elevated freeway that ended in pure nothingness, and Milwaukee had it.
Having by chance seen this bit of filming in person, I looked forward to the movie, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, which turned out to be one of the zaniest and most brilliant car-chase comedies since It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Plus, it was a hip sort of roots musical, with one of the greatest arrays of musical talent ever performing in a scripted film.
And now, The Blues Brothers has received one of the ultimate formal recognitions, having been inducted into the 2021 National Film Registry of the Library of Congress (I didn’t know about this until my sister Sheila Lynch emailed me yesterday with the news.).
There’s no question it’s a great comedy (at times over the top, of car after crashing car) worthy of the registry, and absolutely bursting with stirring blues, soul and gospel music by such legendary onscreen performers, including Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Chaka Kahn, and the Blues Brothers’ (Belushi and Aykroyd) own rhythm section, comprising the great studio musicians best known collectively as the MGs, as in Booker T and the MGs. The movie’s soundtrack is a classic of that those genres of recorded music.
Here’s a video clip from Aretha’s knock-out performance of “Think” in the film, where she plays an under-appreciated, overworked waitress at a cafe the boys stop at for lunch.
The bros also commiserate with one of the mightiest of soul brothers, Ray Charles (That’s what I said!). Courtesy IMDb
Jake and Elwood Blues do a rave-up with, among others, legendary R&B guitarist Steve Cropper (white long-sleeve shirt, in background) Courtesy https://oneroomwithaview.wordpress.com 1
And it’s got a very redeeming storyline (with a script co-written by Akyroyd and Landis) in which paroled convict Jake and his blood brother Elwood, set out on “a mission from God” to save from foreclosure the Roman Catholic orphanage in which they were raised. To do so, they must reunite their R&B band and organize a performance to earn $5,000 needed to pay the orphanage’s property tax bill. Along the way, they are targeted by a homicidal “mystery woman”, Neo-Nazis, and a country and western band— all while being relentlessly pursued by the police.
During the high-speed chase from a battalion of cop cars, on Wacker Drive with its numerous buttress I-beams under the Chicago “L,” with the Bluesmobile surging up to 120 mph (according to their speedometer), the brothers still find a moment of cultural acknowledgement.
“Up ahead is the Honorable Richard G. Daley Plaza,” driver Jake announces.
“Isn’t that Picasso there?” Elwood asks (referencing Picasso’s untitled monumental sculpture, known as “Chicago Picasso”) .
Here’s the Library of Congress announcement of the 25 new films inducted for 2021: https://blogs.loc.gov/now-see-hear/2020/12/library-of-congresses-announced-25-new-films-for-the-national-film-registry/
The brothers journey actually begins the night before — or in the wee hours of the morning (the film’s timeline isn’t exactly bulletproof) somewhere in Northern Illinois, where Jake and Elwood begin their quest to transport the money they’ve raised to save their childhood orphanage to Chicago City Hall in their decommissioned cop car with the famous line: “There’s 106 miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
When I saw the film in the movie theater, I enjoyed it immensely and near the end, came the final freeway chase scene between The Blues Brothers and another even more nefarious foe, Neo-Nazis, led by the comic actor Henry Gibson. Then, in an editing flash, I recognized the Milwaukee interchange and skyline, as the chase’s backdrop.
In this stunt scene from “The Blues Brothers,” the Bluesmobile flies over another car in a scene, I believe, from the segment filmed in in Milwaukee. Courtesy Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock.
Sure enough, they’d used that segment in the film. Then, in one scene of the chase I noticed, in the background, a small white car following slowly behind, off to the right. I squinted, blinked my eyes, and then exclaimed right in the theater, “That’s my car!”
Several annoyed moviegoers turned to glare at me. But sure enough, it was me driving my white AMC Hornet with its bent-up front bumper (from an accident shortly after I bought it from Big Bills used car lot on Center and Fond du Lac Avenue). I’d never dreamed my car would be in a scene.
So, The Hornet and I had become “local color” in The Blues Brothers, even if only mainly white, with some rust highlights and a crooked chrome bumper.
In this clip (below) from that final scene, my Hornet is clearly visible for several seconds at the 1:20 mark, puttering along on the other side of traffic cones, as the Blues Brothers’ stolen cop car continues its epic flight scene from the Neo-Nazis.
The scene, by the way, has a priceless throwaway line – from one Nazi to the other – that seems like an oblique homage to Joe E. Brown’s classic closing line from another great comedy, Some Like it Hot.
If you freeze the frame at 1:24, and look closely, you might even make out my smashed-in front bumper (with the chrome bumper pushed up above the white body frame on the left side, as the photo of my car below shows)
The Blues Brothers vehicle, the so-called Bluesmobile, is seen in the movie poster photo at top with Jake and Elwood. The stolen cop car, a souped-up 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan, was chosen as one of the most iconic cars in movie history by GQ magazine. 2
So, in my small world, my little old AMC Hornet has become just a wee bit iconic, I daresay. The jalopy was a 3-speed stick shift on the column, and fun to drive. Here’s a photo of my “famous”‘ rust-bucket shortly before I traded it in for another used car, which would have another historic story attached to it, a tale for another time.
Kevin with his (iconic? or I comic?) AMC Hornet on the day he traded it in for a little red tin can called a Ford Fiesta.
1 This is actually a shot of the Blues Brothers performing on Saturday Night Live, the “brothers” genesis as well-known co-comedians. Most of the performance stills of the band from the movie are from the other side of a chain-link fence and poorly discernible. The fence was erected because the band was playing a warm-up gig in a country music bar, with a really tough crowd, before their successful big fundraising concert.
2 GQ commented, “The Bluesmobile makes the (most iconic movie cars) list not just because it was a cool car driven by cool dudes doing cool stunts, but because of the chaos left in its wake. The cars were so battered by all the stunts and crashes that there was a 24-hour body shop on set. By the end of the filming, 103 cars had been trashed, a record for any film, right up until a total of 104 was reached… by the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000.”
I explained the genesis and story of this drawing in a recent blog but I decided to make it my current blog header image because the Facebook posting of it was well-received. Plus, it may be the only depiction of me as a writer in action, aside from the shot of me interviewing singer Asha Puthli, from a few years later (below).
The drawing caricatures me in the 1980s when I was writing for The Milwaukee Journal (and freelancing for Down Beat, the occasion of the photo with Asha) but looking for a full-time newspaper staff position, thus I created this drawing as a catchy job-pitch stationary header.
As I remain an arts & entertainment writer, the 1980s images remain apt, if graced — more than baggaged — I hope, by time.
A portrait of Stan Getz. Courtesy RW Theaters.
Why now? Why Stan Getz now? Because he’s a voice in time and beyond time, a voice within and wherever. Wherever I go, I’ve come to know, I yearn to hear him, and all he has to say.
I understand now, as well as a non-saxophonist can, what John Coltrane meant when he said of Getz, “We’d all sound like that if we could.” Coltrane was, among other things, a supreme master of balladeering, where many saxophonists make their bid for a sound as beautiful as possible.
My own analogue to Coltrane’s indirect superlative: I would carry Getz’s sound with me further than any other instrument’s, if forced to forsake all but one. Maybe it’s a Sophie’s choice between Getz and Miles Davis.
As a relatively young journalist, I had already reviewed a Getz performance at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery for The Milwaukee Journal, a highlight among many superb artists I heard and reviewed there. Two years later, I interviewed him in Chicago, then wrote a feature previewing a Getz performance at a Rainbow Summer concert in Milwaukee. There I met him again afterwards and, though brief, the reacquaintance still holds a tight grip on my heart. You see, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, I agreed to accompany him in a walk to his hotel room, but he had one small condition.
Would I please carry his saxophone for him? After the performance, he was fatigued, partly the byproduct of years of abuse of his body with drugs and alcohol.
I accepted the task gladly, and the instant thrill of carrying one of the world’s most revered artistic instruments, beside its owner and artmaker, inspired a short poem, “Bossa Not So Nova.” 1
So, I’ve written about Getz in three modes but, mea culpa, it still doesn’t seem enough.
Lately I’ve revisited him upon buying a used copy of the Getz musical biography Nobody Else But Me, by Dave Gelly. It discourses across the artist’s career with close readings of numerous Getz recordings, his legacy beyond memories, as he died in 1991.
This excellent book prompted me to dig out an array of Getz recordings.
As I write, I’m listening to him essay “Infant Eyes,” an exquisite ballad by another giant of the tenor sax, Wayne Shorter, and each limpid whole note unfurls with delicious tenderness and knowing delicacy.
The album “Moments in Time,” recorded in 1976, was released in 2016. Courtesy Resonance Records.
But he’s much more than a fatherly cradle-rocker.
I couldn’t have responded to this recording much earlier than a few years ago, when I obtained a copy of the Getz album Moments in Time, recorded live by Getz’s Quartet in 1976, but not released until 2016 on Resonance, a label specializing in what I’d call “jazz archeology.” 2
And there’s more affinity between Getz and Shorter than a few of Wayne’s tunes in Getz’s repertoire. The sound of their voices resonates similarly, an exquisitely soft vibration, a singing like a distinctly masculine bird that — warbles and vibratos aside — can hold a note like a distant horizon of destiny. Both saxophonists have lived lives deeply shadowed by tragedy, likely informing their profound sensibilities.
Indeed now, the tune playing is “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and it belies one misplaced reservation I held about Getz in the past.
He disabused me of it when I saw him in 1982 at the Jazz Gallery.
But I’m referring to back in the mid-1960s, when he broke into broad public awareness with his lilting bossa nova luminosities. He could hold and caress a note as if it were palpable and breathing which, with him, it truly was. Such audible tenderness enchanted me as much as any other single jazz artist did with one recording, Getz/Gilberto.
Cover of the famous album “Getz/Gilberto.” Connect Brazil.
And sure enough, right now with Horace Silver’s “Peace” (from Moments in Time), Getz is beguiling yet again. Getz/Gilberto, created, arranged, and recorded by virtually all Brazilian musicians, racked up unprecedented sales for a jazz recording (2 million copies in 1964) and became the first non-American album to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1965.
But back during the bossa nova craze, for all my admiration, I doubted whether Getz was capable of anything approaching what I call “The Cry.”
I do hear a cry in the “wild goose cry” tune I’d just heard, but I’m referring to a sound often heard among saxophonists in the 1960s, during the same time Getz lulled and seduced with “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Getz and vocalist Astrud Gilberto who sang the huge international hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” which propelled the album “Getz/Gilberto” to great sales heights and an “Album of the Year” Grammy.
The notion of “The Cry” is the expressionism that numerous saxophonists especially began manifesting during that period of social upheaval and raised consciousness over racial injustice. It’s a heavily freighted topic and subtext. So perhaps its unsurprising that a naturally lyrical white saxophonist isn’t easily associated with it. Nevertheless, over the years, the true and extraordinary range of Getz’s expressive power expanded, and his own version of “The Cry” arose, as such a vivid contrast to his inherently singing style that it carried the weight of striking effects, like a sculptor’s chisel discharging chards and sparks, to convey how life can force us to extremes of feeling and response.
To me, Getz seemed to be universalizing the plight and poignance conveyed in “The Cry,” most often associated with African-American musicians. This is not to minimize the racial suffering those artists endured and expressed, but to find the shared humanity in it. Getz’s suffering might be arguably his own demons’ making, more than of a cruel society built on systemic racism. He even was capable of violence under the influence, which he always regretted, even serving brief incarceration.
Gelly insightfully notes a great irony, how the drugs and liquor might’ve facilitated an “alpha state” in which, Getz explained, “the less you concentrate the better. The best way to create is to get in the alpha state…what we would call relaxed concentration.”
Such can be the price of art. Does that make it ill-begotten? Illegitimate?
As a Russian Jew, he may have had ancestral instincts of suffering and class oppression hounding his psyche. Accordingly, he seems a different sort of expressive animal — “Nobody Else But Me” as he might say. The simplicity of the declaration also may reflect Getz’s uniqueness, his fingerprint identity, his sonic originality as a pied piper whom, when heard, we still feel compelled to follow, decades after bossa nova first sailed across waves and valleys. Years after his last living breath.
Thank the music gods for his voice, retrieved and captured.
1 a poem about Stan Getz (written to the cadence of “Girl from Ipanema.”)
2 Moments in Time comprises mainly classic and modern jazz standards with Getz’s working quartet at the time: pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Billy Hart. However, Resonance also released simultaneously a Getz album Getz/Gilberto ’76, highlighting guitarist-singer Joao Gilberto, and Brazilian songs,
pps. I also wrote about Getz when I found a used copy of his album Sweet Rain, as few years ago.
3. Here’s a review of a live Getz performance at The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, in 1982:
I have lived in a number of neighborhoods in my lifetime in Milwaukee and Madison, most of them quite congenial: A south side family bungalow right north of a Mitchell Field take-off strip where giant jets shook my youthful body and imagination with sonic booms. In Madison’s Nakoma neighborhood, a house influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style, and engulfed in tall pines, and a few blocks away from the city’s splendid Arboretum.
But there is only one neighborhood that I have returned to reside in, for a second time by choice, and that is Milwaukee’s Riverwest. I originally moved here when I bought a duplex with my sister Nancy In the 1980s, which she still lives in. It was a period of great cultural and political vitality, and an ideal location, as much of my journalistic work then was covering music at the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, right in the neighborhood, for The Milwaukee Journal.
So, when I moved back to Milwaukee from Madison in 2008, I knew I wanted to return to this unpredictably diverse, slightly funky and always vital region. The following photo essay comprises images compiled on a walk the full-length of Riverwest on the street that I live on, which ended on the North Avenue water reservoir overlooking downtown.
I’m sure any number of other photo portraits could be made by taking different routes around this consistently vibrant neighborhood. But this is mine, from a walk taken the last day of February as the smallest buds began to claim their place and space to grow into.
This image characterizes the interface of the urban and natural surroundings – an old, weathered Riverwest sidewalk and a crystal-clear puddle, revealing the tree overhead in which you can just sense the tiny buds emerging from its tips, reaching out to the sky’s fleeting blues. I’d also call this a Katrin Talbot photo, because she consistently gets highly observant shots of small or even grand beauties often standing right under our distracted noses, or toeses (Yes, I’m talking to “smart phone”-addled pedestrians.) Katrin is a gifted Madison photographer, poet, and symphony musician whose Facebook page I recommend you check out.
Here’s a block of houses that perfectly reflects the architectural characterization of Riverwest residences as depicted in the neighborhood signs recently placed all around our neck of the woods. The sign also suggests the way Riverwest overlooks downtown, especially from its high point, the North Avenue water reservoir.
It’s an absolutely big sky view of downtown, perhaps the best that a pedestrian can find. Though I did walk to the top of the reservoir on this day, I did not include that city skyline view, because the subject here is Riverwest.
If the iconic image of the new Riverwest signs captures the neighborhood reasonably well, the next two images help dispel some of the stereotypes about who lives here. And I didn’t have to go far to find these – they were actually the first two photographs I took. In this one above, the apparent residence of a United States Marine proudly displays his or her service flag. And yet, this resident resolutely keeps this blue sign out front, long after the intensely contentious and politically transformative 2011 recall effort to remove Gov. Scott Walker.
The neighbor’s long-standing statement of dissent might not seem typical of a highly disciplined military person, nor such a person’s typical politics. But it reflects a well-trained person who understands the role of a true citizen and patriot. I see it as an excellent example of the independent thinking one finds in this neighborhood, even if a majority of residents probably lean from the center to the left.
Here’s another charming Riverwest stereotype refutation, and a close neighbor of the Walker-protesting Marine above. Clearly not everyone in the neighborhood is a lefty secular humanist, agnostic or atheist. The number of venerable, still-active churches in the neighborhood testifies to that, even if their attendance tends lower than it was a few decades ago. But these Riverwest neighbors put their love of Jesus Christ’s mother Mary out front for everyone to see, along with the rather mischievous-looking elves scampering around to behind her.
There is certainly a profusion of artistic types in our neighborhood and here’s a delightful example. This painted metal relief sculpture gives you an idea where this resident might be if not at home – out on the waves amid sun, the clouds, the birds and aquatic sea life. It alludes to how close we are to Lake Michigan, just across the nearby Milwaukee River for which we are named, and yonder, though Shorewood.
The literacy of Riverwest residents is somewhat of a given, but our valuing of the written word is something we share with our community. On my walk down my neighborhood street alone, I counted four “LittleFreeLibraries” such as this one. There’s some predictable titles, such as one by mega-selling Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown on the left. But also discover, if you look closely, a copy of the last book that the late, great John Cheever wrote, a slim novella titled Oh What a Paradise it Seems, a characteristically bittersweet observation, published shortly before his death of cancer in 1982. Also note, on the far right, a novel by the great Polish-American novelist Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo and The Secret Agent. This slightly less well-known Conrad novel is Victory published in 1915, a psychological thriller set on an Indonesian island, and which draws from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest.
I stopped by Riverwest’s storefront radio station WXRW-104.1 FM, but it wasn’t on the air and so there was little to see. But it’s a very interesting station you can check out here:
So, I went next door to the Fuel Cafe for a newspaper, and a quintessential Riverwest moment occured. Several people were eating late lunches and, as I walked out, one man stood up with a tray laden with a scattering of tortilla chips. “Hey, anyone want the rest of these chips?” he called out. “Otherwise I’m gonna throw ’em out.”
“I’ll take ’em!” another dude piped up, and the not-so-secret sharer delivered them to him. At what other restaurant would you see such an open act of sharing between perfect strangers, regardless of conventional decorum? That’s Riverwest, for you.
At the “fork” in one intersection, I took the path more traveled for me, which has often made all the difference. That led me to Woodland Pattern Book Center, on Locust Street, which may be the intellectual and perhaps, despite all the churches, the spiritual heart of neighborhood.
The long, white facade of the building announces it’s utterly unique nature. The facade changes from time to time, with varying names, quotations and imagery usually signifying human life, intellect and expression in relation to the grand natural environment we share.
Woodland Pattern specializes in small press publications, and it may be the largest such collection in a bookstore between the coasts. You will especially find a vast array of poetry in full book form, and in numerous chapbooks on the card rack-like display in the photo above on the left, and even more of an eccentric collection of chapbooks in the file cabinets in the foreground.
The center, co-founded by artist Anne Kingsbury, regularly presents a stimulating panoply of cultural events – author readings, regular art exhibits in its far third room, and concerts of exploratory and avant-garde music, often improvisational in nature.
For all of this, Woodland Pattern sustains its highly non-commercial offerings by having established itself as a valuable state cultural resource.
So it gets a fair share of grants and government funding but also relies on the membership of its patrons. I renewed my membership on this visit, and picked up a small book by the great nature writer Barry Lopez called The Rediscovery of North America, which was actually a Thomas D. Clarke lecture Lopez gave in 1990, a sort of meditation on Christopher Columbus and the history of rampant exploitation of The New World’s astonishing natural bounty and indigenous peoples. The Spaniards began the cruel plunder, which continues as a large part of our capitalistic mentality and political culture. But Lopez also posits hope and evidence that we are “rediscovering” our own continent with a newfound caring, partly by listening to what our indigenous peoples and species have to tell us.
Before leaving Woodland Pattern, it’s worth noting the distinct and timely political consciousness that the store conveys, as evidenced by the sign in the middle of this photograph, taken from outside on the street.
I would’ve like to have stopped into another neighborhood institution, the Falcon Bowl Hall, on the corner of Clarke and Fratney Sts., but they were closed and, as a neighbor told me, they open maybe at five or seven but it’s very unpredictable. The Falcon bar has a bowling alley in his basement, a true working-class, middle-America past time that again goes against the grain of typical perceptions of this neighborhood. It will also host the Riverwest Follies at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25.
Another closed place I bypassed this afternoon was the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Center St., which continues the storied tradition of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery in its own way, as a multi-arts center, which I’ve written about quite a bit on this blog.
But another local bar did beckon me, shortly after 3 PM, with open doors, and typically alluring artwork.
The Art Bar on Burleigh St. is my favorite tavern in Riverwest, and probably in Milwaukee, the city of taverns. That’s mainly because I’m more of an art lover than an alcohol imbiber. Besides the artwork in regular changing exhibits, the place also has a pool table and a dartboard, both which get regular use. Ah, but the art! Look above in another front-window shot, peeping in on the vividly colorful work on display, a group show of portrait painters.
Among the current Art Bar exhibitors, Elias Zananiri (top) shows personages with deeply radiant ethnic ornamentation and expressivity. Les Leffingwell (above) meanwhile provides a personal inlet into the troubled but resilient souls of blues musicians.
Mike Judy shows that an eccentric and humorous portraiture style can figuratively capture humanity with its pants down while allowing them a measure of personal dignity.
“Everyday Portraits” by Jody Reid includes this affectionate, virtuosic and insightful portrait of a guy named “Brad.” It’s worth zooming in for some of the detail of the oil canvas.
Further on down the street, I got to Fratney Street School, a highly-regarded bi-lingual elementary school, with some very small kids shooting a multi-colored basketball (top) and a very exclusive conference of two – make that three – young girls on this ingeniously engaging jungle gym.
Riverwest also expresses itself in its vehicles. Like an almost-forgotten beauty queen contestant, this bizarre four-wheeled contraption was just waiting for its picture to be taken, and to be discovered.
We began our little Riverwest tour with a home making a political statement and we end with another home doing the same. Like the die-hard “Recall Walker” dissenter, this ingeniously homemade HIllARY Clinton sign, made out of painted tree branches and wire – which blazes in the night with Christmas tree lights – remains proudly and defiantly up, in this very strange Age of Trump. We all know who the people’s choice was in this election.
T’was a relatively serene midweek afternoon walk, with not a lot of people out, but plenty of life still abounded in our good, old neighborhood.