It is 6:47 p.m. on a Thursday night. I dim the lights in my one-bedroom apartment in Mount Pleasant. I pour myself a small glass of Crown Royal. The first sip goes down sweet and warm.
This is going to be special.
Over a slinky bass line, and lonesome harmonic wail, Arelean Brown honks her self-worth: “I am a streaker baby/And I don’t think it’s no disgrace/I’m built like an outhouse with not a brick out of place.”
Those lines come off of Light: On the South Side, a $60 multimedia experience devoted to Chicago’s mid-’70s funk-blues scene. Brought to you by archivist label Numero Group, the box houses a hardbound collection of photographer Michael L. Abramson’s black-and-white prints dating from 1975 to 1977, on and off the dance floor. You never see the bands, only the fans in their pimped-out, analog-and-polyester heyday. Only as a bonus does the label provide a two-record compilation of bumpers from the era, the kind that could have been on heavy rotation at Pepper’s Hideout, a shabby secret lit by neon on a narrow South Side street.
And if Pepper’s was an experience, so, too, is Light. Or at least it’s designed to be, according to Numero Group co-founder Ken Shipley. “It’s about creating an experience for the listener, making sure the experience that I would want to have is just delivered,” he explains. “How do you give the listener that most perfect experience?”
Shipley thinks he’s figured it out. And let’s just say that the Crown Royal wasn’t my idea.
The music industry has grown fond of turning mere albums into full-blown experiences. According to Billboard, vinyl sales were up 37 percent so far this year, with 2 million records sold by November. This counts as very good news in an industry that’s about as dead as newspapers. The nerds steal as much as any tween. But unlike Lady Gaga fans, nerds insist on trying to stay true to their promise to really listen. So they continue to steal files and buy vinyl. Vinyl LPs, trophies fattened to 180 grams, dressed in bright yellows and blues, and adorned with silkscreen covers, are just pelts on the wall for the illegal downloader.
If you buy vinyl, you are making a promise. You are telling yourself that you will turn off the Internet, walk away from trying to complete the latest World of Warcraft installment, quiet your cell phone, and forget all about the women of Real Housewives. You are making a promise that you will devote real time and just listen.
You would need a leave of absence just to sit through the entire deluxe reissue of Pearl Jam’s Ten. The pop-grunge 11-song tribute to emoting through your nose has been blown into a suitcase’s worth of audio arcana that includes a remaster of the original album plus a remix of the album on both CD and LP, plus a cassette replica of the band’s demo tape, two more LPs of a Pearl Jam live show, and a DVD of the band’s MTV Unplugged performance. The only thing it doesn’t come with is some long underwear to wear under shorts and a T-shirt.
Are there enough Pixies diehards who will spend $200 for the band’s box set? How about $600 for the limited edition model: five CDs, five records, six Blu-Ray discs, six DVDs, and two books. It weighs more than 25 pounds. You’d think it would include a replica of Frank Black’s boobs.
Even non-canonical works are getting the enhanced treatment. For $50, you can purchase Mariah Carey’s latest album as a box set that includes a two-CD version, the LP version, and a series of lithographs. Ultimate fandom has never had this much merch to wallow in.
But how do these things actually play out as experiences?
A week before the release of Light, I am on the phone with Shipley, listening to him press his case. And, no, he isn’t offering promos. You have to just buy it. Shipley isn’t just a fanboy with an Alan Lomax-like ear for the great unheard songs. He’s also a damn good salesman. I soon felt like I had to own the set.
But after buying Light, I couldn’t quite find the time to actually play it. The thing sat on my floor in its shrinkwrap for a month. I decided to call Shipley back for instructions on how best to deal with his labor of love. Shipley still had some selling to do.
“It’s best served with drinks,” Shipley says from his Chicago headquarters. “I recommend pouring yourself a highball, putting on Side 1 and looking at the book as the music comes along. Crown Royal would be the preferred drink. Do you have a pack of Kools?”
“What if I don’t have any Crown Royal?” I ask meekly.
“Crown Royal, man, that’s the one. If hard liquor isn’t your thing, Schlitz is your brand. It’s Chicago’s South Side’s beer of choice. Every building had the Schlitz logo.”
The box also comes with a limited-edition single.
“A shot for the single,” Shipley explains. “And, like, a bender for the LP.”
The night before I crack open the box, I decide I need to plan ahead. I need to be able to crank the tunes, give myself some room with a pint, a six-pack, and that huge tome propped on the floor by my kitchen entrance. I decide to ask my wife if she plans on working late the following day.
“Why do you want to know?” she asks.
I explain to her I need time alone. With some records.
She said she’d be home by 7:30.
The next night, I leave work early and pick up the Crown Royal, the Schlitz, and a soft pack of Kools. I am ready.
In the middle of Brown’s alpha-female come-on, my cell phone rings. I ignore it. Go away, whoever you are.
This isn’t Tonight Show blues. Brown’s bawdy declarations segue perfectly into Bobby Rush’s rumbler “Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man.” I’m starting to feel like the loser in the back of the club who just sits and sips and stares at the couples on the dance floor.
“In my room/Me and you,” Rush instructs, the warmest, kindest kind of menace.
I peel open Abramson’s book. Inside, women dance with their pocketbooks on their arm, their eyes closed, big hips and big earrings, A-lines and Afros, men held tight. The night is just starting. The couples look content, last call still hours away.
A page or two later, there’s a spaced-out dude in the front seat of a big Lincoln, his door open like a vulture’s wing. An equally zonked woman stands at his fender. He’s either leaving her or about to lay on the sloppiest of come ons. Either way, it’s going to be a rough night. In another shot, a group of men talk next to a scratched Impala.
The Crown Royal’s warmth rises from my gut to my face and surrounds my eyes. I’m getting sleepy. I’m ready for Lady Margo’s slow march “This Is My Prayer (To Find Someone of My Own).” Her scripture grows a string section. I want to cry.
It’s time for a Kool outside.
I check the time. I had promised to put the squash chunks in the oven. I do that first, sprinkling them with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Outside, I stare at the Volvo station wagon parked in my building’s driveway.
It takes me a while to hit Side 2. Gmail beckons. Facebook and Twitter need checking. Our cat had decided to warm her face under my desk light. My imaginary club is empty, and then it’s not.
I hear the door open.
“How’s it going?” my wife asks.
I ask if I can smoke the Kools in the apartment.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
I don’t return to Shipley’s South Side for hours, losing myself in a book, in dinner, in the inevitable bad TV. When it’s time, I pop open a Schlitz.
I realize that this exercise is almost racist: the Crown Royal, the Schlitz, and the Kools are all stereotypes of a certain experience, a certain scene. But there’s a point: They are all bridges to Pepper’s. So I stick with it, gulp down the cheap beer, turn the pages, and admire the men with Eddie Murray sideburns and the pimp scepters. In a few years, crack would take over and the blues would start to sound a lot like a Disney version. I don’t see anyone lavishing a box set on the House of Blues.
I want to keep staring at Abramson’s pictures.
Johnny Pepper opened the original Pepper’s in 1956 with a $500 loan from Ford Motors. He played host to the Chess record label’s masters and the wannabes, the harp heads and the guitar gods never to find a flock. The joint changed locations, grew a theme for Mondays called “Blue Monday,” and its owner eventually joined up with a harmonica player/label owner/drug dealer. The club stayed true, taking in feminism, funk, and a killer house band all within its small dance floor.
Pepper’s may just be a footnote in Chicago’s deep musical history somewhere buried behind Curtis Mayfield and Sun Ra and Chess. But even Pepper’s had a heyday that’s worth discovery: a place of ecstatic communion between cans of Schlitz. Like Robert Frank capturing a diner scene in the ’50s or Lee Friedlander’s street photography in the ’60s and ’70s, Abramson had Pepper’s in its heyday. Shipley just wanted to see if he could recreate it for the rest of us. “This is a very tightly knit scene,” he says. “This is what it was like. This is where you weren’t.”
I find the couple dancing on Page 68. It takes me a while to notice that the man with his arms around his woman is trying to snap his fingers to the beat. In another shot, a woman is whispering a secret.
Everyone in Abramson’s pictures looks like they know the secret. I quit at about 3 a.m. I wake up with a hangover.
It took me three nights to listen through all the groaners and moaners, Blue Mondays, horn honks, dirty breaks, and cheap thrills. I downed three Schlitzes and smoked five Kools. I never put much of a dent in the Crown Royal.
At the end of the last song on the last side, I start wishing for my own hideout.
I then put the needle back on Arelean Brown’s “I’m a Streaker Baby” for one more round.
I think I’ll save the 45 for my wife. I hope it’s a ballad.