Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. He has contributed pieces to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader and Playboy magazine. He has written books about the Farm Aid movement, travel and kick ass country music. His latest book is about minor league baseball in the Midwest.
Jan. 27, 2013— Elaine Layabout transforms global music through images from vintage dramas, kitsch and travel videos. The Chicago-based indie filmmaker is creating the video wallpaper for a monthly tribute to Tiki exotica that sets sail at 9 p.m. Jan. 29 at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, 960 W. 31st St. in Bridgeport-By-The-Sea.
Well, Bridgeport-By-Bubbly Creek.
“It’s exciting because this is the reverse of what happens in movies,” Layabout said last week. “I’ve done music direction in movies where you’re picking music to transform the images. Here I am doing the reverse.”
A couple of hours of her work will be shown to the mixes of global DJ Richard Pierson. Expect colorful snippets from 1932’s Dolores del Rio romantic drama adventure “Bird of Paradise,” the 1952 Bing-Crosby-Bob Hope classic “Road to Bali,” 1922’s “Toll of the Sea” and much more. I’ll be spinning Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Don Ho and “The Magic Organ Goes To Hawaii,” but that’s not the point of this coconut telegraph.
“My work is completely cued into the music,” Layabout said. “I’m a musician, so it’s a given. Richard gives me the mixes and I listen to them. Then I browse through my archives and pull videos. I cut them up to pull scenes I think are interesting or to fit whatever narrative I am trying to shoehorn them into.” Layabout said she pulls her material from large stacks of still and moving images. “I was watching (the 1944 travelouge) ‘Belles of the South Seas’ and trying to see if I could use some clips,” she explained. “It is old black and white video and every scene the women are topless and I’m totally fine with that. My videos are all about breasts in the moonlight. But the way the images are framed, in order to get everyone’s breasts on camera, they cut off the tops of the women’s heads. Is this too much objectification for me to handle? This is all about objectifying people and their culture. I may use these at Maria’s, I don’t know.”
Layabout assembles the videos aesthetically. Sometimes she mixes color and black and white footage and colorizes black and white footage. “It’s irreverent,” she said. “I’ve taken footage from Cuba, South America, Africa and Japan and put it all together. Thinking with the music, that’s the exciting thing to me. There’s a lot of dance footage, which is appropriate. I’m manipulating time. I’m slowing footage up, or speeding it up in order to fit with the music. I’m very anal retentative about matching video with the music.”
Iconic Chicago groove merchant Joe Bryl is the show’s promoter. “Tiki music per se was developed by mainland haole Martin Denny and Kaui born Arthur Lyman, both of whom spent the bulk of their careers sound-tracking Tiki themed tourist lounges in Waikiki,” Bryl said. “Those who insist Tiki music has nothing to do with Hawaii forget that it’s a music of ports of call rather than territories, sound born along a web of trade routes linking Havana and Hong Kong, Mexico South and Manila, with Honolulu as a hub.” Snippets of “I Am Cuba” will be part of her mix at Maria’s.
The 1964 anti-American propaganda film was made as a Cuban-Soviet collaboration. It was restored and released in the United States in 1995 by Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. The film is shot in black and white with hand held cameras that create a musical rhythm (and accounts for the film’s majestic pans). The Sun-Times Roger Ebert called it “dated—but fascinating.” I bought the cigar-box sized “Ultimate Edition” of “I Am Cuba” which does a fine job of creating ambiance at my home tiki bar. Layabout said, “Just for me as a photographer where every single frame looks like a photograph, ‘I Am Cuba’ blew my mind.”
Layabout is a native of Cleveland, Ohio who grew up in the hills of Virginia.
Bird of Paradise, 1932
She also lived in Treasure Island, Fla. and the Everglades in Florida where her late father Walter was a manager for the Farm Store convience store chain. “Whenever there was a hurricane he would load us into the car during the eye of the storm,” she recalled. “And we would drive us around checking on all these stores.” Now, there’s some video footage. Layabout earned an English degree at the University of Chicago and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She went to law school and studied film at U.C.L.A. She stayed in Los Angeles for “many years” and returned to Chicago in 2011. Layabout is currently doing post-production work on jobs sent to her from Los Angeles.
When Layabout lived in Los Angeles she played—mandolin—in the popular Southern Gothic punk band Manhattan Murder Mystery. “Most of my video experience is in Los Angeles,” she explained. “I was the videographer for this amazing college radio station called KXOU. We did a live show on Friday nights. Somebody would do playlists from YouTube and we had cameras on the DJs. We were live mixing the DJs to bands from YouTube. Sometimes we even color keyed and did special effects. Video is also very popular in L.A. clubs with outdoor bars. I don’t know why, but it seems like in outdoor bars they project video.” I’d guess it’s because of drive-in movies.
Layabout continued, “I’m surprised there’s not more of this being done. I’m kind of new to all this in Chicago.”
SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—-Lou Whitney props his feet up on the soundboard of his recording studio in downtown Springfield. The bass player-vocalist-producer has just finished his first show of 2013 with yet another version of the Skeletons, the most giving rock n’ roll band in America.
The Skeletons play regular two-hour Thursday sets which start at 7 p.m. at the Outland, a small rock club adjacent to Whitney’s studio. They start early because they have things to do.
Long time Skeletons keyboardist Joe Terry has to get up at 4:30 a.m. to open a coffee shop he manages in the soon-to-be-gentrified North Springfield. On this first Friday of 2013 Whitney is substitute teaching first grade at Portland Elementary in Springfield.
Skeleton music is a glorious blend of fire bells, gumdrops and life’s eternal recess.
They play Morells and Skeletons “hits,” along with an infectious new Terry original “Wishing Well” that is part Garth Hudson and part Elvis Costello. Covers range from drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks’ “Tennessee Waltz,” a tribute to the recently departed Patti Page, a Band-like version of Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk,” a reggaeized cover of the 1969 hit “Ma Bella Mie” by the Dutch group Tee Set and a wild version of George Harrison’s “Wah-Wah” led by new guitarist Mark Bilyeu, the former lead songwriter of Big Smith.
The audience numbers 16 people.
We have paid $5 each to witness this unfiltered joy. If you like the early Beatles/Dave Clark Five, She and Him and NRBQ (another relentless band which most often gets compared to the Skeletons) you are here.
If you like to be happy, you are here.
One older fan has done work on the awnings of Whitney’s studio that were damaged in a recent storm. Another gentleman brings the band $50 certificates to a local art cinema house as a late Christmas present. These fans light up a night club that has seen better days.
The Outland’s walls consist of exposed brick and jagged crate. A deflated life size Jim Beam bottle sits on a shelf high above stage left. Somebody should really do something about that. A dead mirror ball hangs from the center of the room, all reflections covered in the dust of time.
Whitney turns 70 years old tomorrow. * * *
Lou Whitney has led a unique American journey.
Sweet Lou cut his chops on the Carolina Beach Music scene where he backed Arthur “Sweet Soul Music” Conley and Chicago’s late Major Lance. In 1977 his band the Symptoms hit New York radio with their cover of the Swinging Medallions Beach music hit “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).” The band heard it on WNEW-AM on the way to a gig at the Peppermint Lounge.
Whitney has produced and the Skeletons played on projects by the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Dave Alvin, Jonathan Richman, Steve Forbert, Syd Straw, late Branson hobo Boxcar Willie and most recently Exene Cervenka of X. Wilco’s “Why Would You Want To Live” from their 1996 “Being There” double album was recorded at The Studio.
One of the Skeletons biggest hits was the 1991 Bo Diddley influenced “Outta My Way,” which received airplay on Chicago’s WXRT-FM. Chicago’s most famous stripper Seka used “Outta My Way” in her routine. In 2003 Whitney and the Skeletons were Diddley’s band for his 2 and a half-hour set on his 75th birthday at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Ill.
“Maybe someday 50 years from now these Belgian guys and Japanese music fans will come by, ‘We’re looking for where ‘The Studio’ was, where all this happened,” Whitney says of the 1,700-square foot studio he opened in 1994 in a former cosmetic store. “And they’ll be told he died a long time ago.”
Springfield (pop. 160,000) is one of the most down-to-earth places in America.
* Springfield is the birthplace of Route 66.
In April, 1926 Tulsa oilman Cyrus Avery met with members of the Missouri State Highway Commission and others at the Colonial Hotel in Springfield about a newfangled 2,448-mile highway that would connect Chicago with the dreams of Los Angeles. The idea was to link the main streets of many small towns to create an interstate highway—thus the Route 66 tagline: “Main Street of America.” This small town ethic has defined Whitney’s music.
* During the mid-1950s’s the Springfield-based Ozark Jubilee was bigger than the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.
In line for the Ozark Jubilee, mid-1950s,
Courtesy of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau
Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show broadcast live across America in the 1940s and 50s from downtown Springfield., a block east of Whitney’s studio. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee.
Springfield is no longer for squares
* Springfield is “The Cashew Chicken Capital of America,” with more than 100 restaurants that serve cashew chicken. Whitney moved to Springfield in 1970. He once explained how Pensacola, Fla. chef David Leong migrated to “The Queen City of the Ozarks” after World War II.
In the late 1960s a semi-truck plowed off of Route 66 into the kitchen of the now-defunct Grove Supper Club where Leong was working. Whitney told me this story in the summer of 2001. To demonstrate what happened, the 6’4” raconteur stood up from behind a desk in his studio and threw himself against a wall. Like Dick Butkus laying into Fran Tarkenton.
Still standing Whitney said, “David was pinned against the wall and suffered minor injuries. He ultimately got a settlement.” Leong opened his own restaurant with the settlement and became the Ray Kroc of Cashew Chicken. His unique style consisted of Chinese oyster sauce, chives and/or chopped scallions.
* Springfield is the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”
For more than 15 years small groups of fundamentalist Christians march up and down on South Street, the major nightlife corridor in front of Whitney’s studio. They carry placards like “MUSIC STARS ARE IDOLS. GOD IS A JEALOUS GOD.” And “THIS PARTY ENDS IN HELL.” I’ve seen the Skeletons sing the haunting Ronnie Self (a Springfield native) blues anthem “Waitin’ For My Gin To Hit Me” with this religious backdrop. And Brad Pitt was raised in a Southern Baptist household in Springfield—before heading to the University of Missouri to study journalism!
This all stirs up a mighty stew of Americana.
“Springfield seemed like a lot of places to me,” Grammy winner Dave Alvin told me in a 2002 piece on Springfield I wrote for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Journal of Country Music. “Part of it seemed like my hometown of Downey (California). I felt at home. Then there was a vibe that felt a little like Austin and Nashville. Everybody can play a lot of different styles. They’re pretty open-minded. In many ways it’s a western city, a southern city and a midwestern city.
“It’s kind of centrally located to be nowhere.”
* * *
Lou Whitney, III was bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets Billy Lee Riley) between 1975-80. They began playing six nights a week in the “Pub Mobile” bar in Rolla, nowhere along Route 66 half way between St. Louis and Springfield. The subterranean bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by guy who dated Donna Douglas.
She was “Elly Mae Clampett” on the Beverly Hillbillies.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The Symptoms morphed into the Morells in 1980 which later became the Skeletons, where pop and rock met Beach music. Drummer Hicks has been around for most of this. He counts the three bands among the 42 he has played in.
Whitney figures the Skeletons know “thousands” of songs.
“I graduated from high school in 1962,” Whitney says with a big smile. “My first two years I was a juvenile delinquent. That’s why I’m a good with kids. I can recognize one.”
Whitney is the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix, Ariz. and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. Lou Whitney, Jr. was a successful Phoenix attorney who had trouble with the law and ordering of Lou Whitney III.
“I went to live with relatives up in the mountains near Bristol, Tennessee after I got in trouble,” Whitney says. “I straightened out and went to college.” Whitney obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he says.
While in college Whitney joined bands that played soul music at frat parties from Tennesse through the University of Mississippi. He reflects, “Sure, I liked the Beatles, but soul music had horn sections, better melodies, there were poppy chord changes but with a big gospel voice.
“So I drag the Beach music stuff into this.”
Terry’s cresting keyboards amplify Whitney’s joyous Beach music rhythm. Hicks has a profound beat that is shaped in the ethic of bandleader Johnny Otis. Long time guitarist Symptoms-Morells-Skeletons guitarist D. Clinton Thompson currently is not performing live with the band, but he still plays sessions at Whitney’s studio when work is available.
Whitney admits that is rare these days.
“I’ll be 70!,” he says. “Even roots rock weirdos won’t come near me. It’s a young person’s business. But if you know anything about music, you know Donnie Thompson is one of the six best guitarists in America. It’s the quality here. You got guys like Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry and Mark Biyleu. Those are my go to guys. They are down to earth, hard working and people you can count on. I stayed in Springfield because it would be hard to find any place where you could do better with more money. Guys in L.A. play good, of course, but the quality doesn’t get much better than this.”
The Skeletons faxing their signed contract to Alias Records
* * *
The ‘Springfield Sound’ blends Beach music with rockabilly, surf and pop.
Is it a sound where musicians play with curiosity and generosity that could only come from the birthplace of Route 66?
“I’d say there is a Springfield attitude,” Whitney says with a whisper. “We are defenders of the song. It’s hard to put yourself outside of this, but if I put myself outside, I realize it is organic. It is musical. When we cut tracks everybody is playing. We do our share of overdubs, but it is live. Some people call it ‘unpolished,’ I would say it is a little more quaint. The people I associate with don’t go to a recording session to enhance their reputation. My guys get paid $250 a day. $250 a day! They come in and work their asses off and go beyond that, 12, 14 hours. If I have anything going on in the studio I want people to know all you have to do is work hard and you can make good music.”
Not long ago a trio of 14-year-old Springfield girls walked into The Studio asking for Whitney to record their tweener pop.
The girls call their group The Poverty All-Stars.
“My goal is to send them down the road knowing, ‘This can be done’,” Whitney explains. “I want their first recording to be the one they hold up as a benchmark for everything else they do. The punk rock bands come in and start talking about the Sex Pistols and I tell them I’m in the documentary DOA (A Rite of Passage, released in 1980). The Sex Pistols played Oral Roberts University in Tulsa and we were out there arguing (with the authorities). I can tell you about punk rock. I can tell you about the Ramones, we played with those guys.”
Whitney has been married for 22 years. He and his wife Kay Tolliver have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Take that, Keith Richards.
It is not beneath Whitney to teach his grandkids some glossy Bruno Mars guitar chords. “And I keep playing live because it keeps your skill set up,” he says.
Whitney leans back in a chair and look around the dimly lit studio. It is nearing 11 o’ clock at night. He continues, “I am noticing some age things. I can’t jump around as much. But I still run three miles a day. I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel any different from a personality standpoint. You get down on your hands and knees to work on some painting, you get up and it’s ‘Oh fuck’. I’m not that excited about turning 70. I’m not doing anything for my birthday. Kay and I will do something. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to be here.”
Mainstream listeners may not know it, but American roots music is a happier place because of Lou Whitney. After the first time you hear the sound of his generous spirit, it becomes a benchmark of everything else that follows. Especially the warm moments that bring you joy, like bright candles on a birthday cake.
In recent years my Christmas Eve ritual has been to see a movie by Navy Pier, followed by a long walk through the still of Chicago.
This year’s fare was “Silver Linings Playbook,” a film with the bright look and colorful optimism of the late-1950s. I’m seasoned enough to know life doesn’t always end this way, which may be why I dropped tears.
But “Silver Linings Playbook:” sure beat the Christmas Eve where I screened the documentary “Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy.” That night the Chicago north side theater consisted of me and three silver-hared female film buffs.
“Silver Linings Playbook” attracted more people than the Ron Jeremy dick-flick. There was the usual holiday gathering of strays and tourists. In the lobby I saw a couple people wrapped in old coats, framed by ragged shopping bags of random items. I don’t know if they were homeless, but they were displaced like silver bows that had slid off Christmas gifts.
After the film I walked down North Michigan Avenue, which was quiet as a museum hallway. I turned past the site of my former office, now a Trump Tower glistening in an opulent glow. Every golden Christmas light counted for a moment of fun in the now-razed building.
I rambled across an empty bridge over the Chicago River. I considered boat trips that began in Lake Michigan, went through the Chicago River, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the Illinois River and the Mississippi River to New Orleans,
Connections made on sunny days.
Connections lost in dense clouds.
It takes a certain amount of grit and generosity to make those connections. I adjourned for a beer and a shot of warm tequila at the Matchbox (here’s Mark Konkol’s sweet postcard to Jackie and Dave). Bartender Graham’s soccer pals came in. Like me, they had bad teeth. They were full of piss and vinegar, cranked up about Boxing Day (Dec. 26) matches in England. Boxing Day is where the upper class helps out the needy and bosses give gifts to their employees…….
……..I’ll leave that punch line to Albert Brooks, who is the funniest guy in America outside of BIll Linden.
Before I retired for my long’s winter nap on Christmas Eve, I read the current Vanity Fair Q & A between Judd Apatow and Brooks (Brooks plays a neurotic older dad in Apatow’s new comedy “This is 40.”)
At the end of the interview Brooks talks about how he was influenced by the minimalism of comic Jack Benny.
I want to share this with you:
A.B. “I knew him a little. He was very sweet to me once. I did a bit on The Tonight Show, early on, this bit Alberto and His Elephant Bimbo. I was a European elephant trainer. I came out and was dressed up with a whip, and I was distraught because the elephant never arrived, and I said, “Look, the show must go on. The Tonight Show, all they could get me was this frog, so I will do my best.” So I took a live frog and put it through all these elephant tricks. Every time he did a trick I threw peanuts at him. And the last trick, I said, ‘I call this trick ‘Find the nut, boy!’ I gave the peanut to somebody on the stage. I walked over and gave it to Doc Severinsen. ‘The elephant will find the peanut!’ I took this frog. I threw this black, huge cloth over him, the one I said I used to blindfold the elephant, and this black rag started hopping all over the place till it eventually hopped over to Doc Severinsen. It actually found him. I didn’t know what the hell the frog was going to do. So after the bit I sit down at the panel and Jack Benny was on. There was always that last two minutes where Johnny was asking people, “Thank you for coming—what do you have coming up?” And during the last commercial Jack Benny leaned over to Johnny Carson and said, “When we get back, ask me where I’m going to be, will you?” So they came back. Johnny said, “I want to thank Albert, Jack, where are you going to be performing?” And Jack Benny said, “Never mind about me—this is the funniest kid I’ve ever seen.”
A.B. “And it was this profound thing. Like, Oh, that’s how you lead your life. Be generous and you can be the best person who ever lived.”
Global warming has put a chill in the air of community. It is five days before Christmas and we haven’t had a drop of seasonal snow in Chicago. Few strangers offer a welcoming nod. They cannot be in a dour mood from dibbing parking spots on a one-way street. But then where I work some guys don’t even look up to say hello in the halllway.
Most people have stopped sending Christmas cards—-I did get one from my parents where the shaky cursive broke my heart. It takes time to get it right. The rapid growth of technology (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) has made our space more personal, defined and solitary. But this isolation is not about me. It is about all of us.
Next month will be four years since I drove from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to follow the promise of the inauguration of President Obama. My friend Ted Frankel put me up in his whimsical Baltimore home. I still remember what he told me over dinner and I’ve used his comment a couple times since: “I’m going to do what makes me happy,” said Ted, who founded the quirky gift shop Uncle Fun in Chicago. “If I’m happy, all the people around me should be happy. And if they’re not, they can find other racetracks, other places to go.” Bill Linden makes me happy.
He makes a difference. I became friends with Bill when I started work at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1985. Bill was an art director and graphic designer for the Sun-Times. We drank at Riccardo’s on Friday night, we threw a few parties together and had a couple late night breakfasts where I watched him affix a half dozen spoons to his noggin’. His record for hanging spoons off his face is 11, set at Riccardo’s. He was in a zone.
Bill is retired now. He quit smoking. And drinking. He writes gags for the popular “Shoe” comic strip as well as “B.C.” and “Wizard of Id.” . He spends a lot of time on Facebook. Bill’s posts make me smile every time I read them. I am not alone. Just a couple hours before we met for lunch at the historic Exchequer Restaurant & Pub in Chicago’s Loop, Bill posted this joke: “My cousin Alan is homophobic…he’s deathly afraid of his home.”
Bill at work at the Sun-Times
William John Linden III was brought up in a happy home in Humboldt Park on the west side of Chicago. His father William John Linden II was a body and fender man, his mother Josephine was a housewife. Bill is the eldest of three boys.
“I was a happy kid,” Bill said over an Exchequer hamburger. “I told jokes. I think I get my sense of humor from my Mom. My father was German, set by the rules. My Mom was Italian—-DeMarco—which turns out is the same name of Momo Giancanna’s mistress. I remember the first joke I ever told. I was eight years old. I had just come from the bathroom and told my mother I sprung a leak. She told me not to talk like that. So it was in there. “To hear people laugh is where I got my love of entertaining people,” and Bill’s eyes were still wide after six decades of wonder.
Bill was a 1965 graduate of Lane Tech High School —-quite appropriately adjacent to the Riverview Amusement Park on the north side of Chicago. After graduation Bill found work at an art studio in downtown Chicago next to the old Playboy building, 232 E. Ohio in Chicago. It was a great neighborhood for an artist who later would become known as “Captain Fun.”
“I stayed there for two years and got drafted,” Bill said. “I went to Dugway, Utah. I had nine months left and was sent to Vietnam. I thought I was going to die.” Bill ran a social club in Quinn Yan Vietnam. The U.S. Army knows how to pick ‘em.
Bill on the last night of Riccardo’s in Chicago, Aug. 25, 1995
“I almost died there from a self inflicted bow and arrow wound,” Bill explained. “I had the bottom barracks all to myself for the service club. One night I heard a rumbling. I looked behind some boxes and there was a big white rat.” Captain Fun grabbed a bow and arrow. He leaned over and shot the arrow at the rat. The arrow ricocheted off the cement floor and zoomed back to Bill’s face. It stuck in the wooden ceiling of the barracks. “I ducked and it hit the ceiling,” he said. “I can still see that arrow coming at me. My old man would have been so pissed with his son coming home in a body bag from a self-inflicted bow and arrow wound.” Bill was 20 years old during his nine month stint in Vietnam. He had a tough audience of a couple hundred soldiers.
“I was friendly to people,” he said. “I made sure people got what they wanted. If they needed a chess set, somehow I would find a chess set. I would show movies in an outdoor theater. We rigged up a parachute so if it was raining the guys could watch the movie without getting soaked. I showed the movie out of an ammunition locker that was baking in the sun all day long. We’d have to wait until night time because it was so hot.” He made something out of nothing.
Bill returned to the states in 1969. “I didn’t have a job,” he said. “Even though I was a VETERAN. It was a tough situation to come home to. I didn’t want to go in the first place. “People weren’t very friendly to us coming home.” * * *
One day out of the always blue skies, Bill saw a want-ad in the Chicago Sun-Times looking for an artist. “I loved the Sun-Times my whole life,” Bill said. “I applied and got it. I was there for 26 and a half years. Jim Hoge hired me. Handsome man, as you know.” Bill started Dec. 4, 1969 at the Sun-Times. He didn’t have to look it up. He keeps it close to his heart. There were between 12 and 14 people in the Sun-Times art department when Bill started. “Graphics didn’t exist then,” he recalled. “We set linotype. The paper cost seven cents. I was actually one of the first graphic designers to make the fashion and food page look like something. Then computers came in and ruined my life. Anyone could be an artist.” Many of the vintage Sun-Times “T.V. Prevue” covers were designed by Bill. “We didn’t have any money back then,” he said. “Shades of today. I would use my friends or co-workers as models. I loved working with people. I would come up with an idea and Downsy (his best friend, former Sun-Times artist John Downs) would draw it. I loved it. For a kid to not have a college education and walk into a newspaper job as an artist? I put all of me into it. I loved the newspaper business. When there’s a big story now and I’m not involved in it, it still hurts.” Bill loved the Sun-Times so much he stole a Sun-Times truck. But he returned it.
Bill Linden (left) and John Downs
In a phone interview Downsy said, “From a working point of view, he is very creative and probably one of the best designers around. No question about that. But his creativity goes way beyond design. It goes into writing, his humor and his sensitivity. It makes for a big, brilliant package. “And the social side of him is just as great because he has the ability to take any kind of a situation and create something unique out of it. That’s what he’s doing today as a gag man for ‘Shoe’ and a number of other cartoons. I’ve always enjoyed being someplace where people don’t know him and watch how people gravitate to him. By looking at the smiles on their faces you can tell they enjoy his presence.”
Downs began his newspaper career in 1962 at the Chicago Daily News. He was brought to the Sun-Times in 1978 after the Daily News folded. Downs took a Sun-Times buy out in 1994. With a forgiving smile Bill recalled, “In the late ‘70s I got mad at the Sun-Times. The National Enquirer wanted a graphic designer. They flew me to Lantana, Florida (their home office). I was there for a Thursday and Friday. The job was for art director and headline writer. They’d give you a test story and you had to come up with a headline. It was a story about this woman who was blind and could see again. I wrote ‘MIRACLE, blah blah blah.’ They looked at it and said, ‘That’s very good. We’re very good at mircales here.’ They paid well, better than the Sun-Times. At five they would bring around this catering cart with free booze and hors d’ ouvers. (The late Generoso) Pope owned the Enquirer then. He would take a chicken wing and bless the table. And everybody would have this great big party. “Then Carol Burnett won the lawsuit from them (in 1983) and the parties stopped.
Bill on Rush Street, north of Riccardo’s circa 1978-79
Bill was always friendly to people in the newspaper business. Again, he had a tough audience. “Journalists have always been cynical,” Bill said. ‘Even in the ‘Front Page’-Ben Hecht days. That’s part of the territory. But I really started to see it change in the late 1980s. One by one they stopped drinking. We lost sense of community.” * * * Bill left the Sun-Times in 1996 when his wife Karen took a job as marketing research director for Paramount studios in Los Angeles. I went to their wedding on Dec. 31, 1996. We sat at the Jerry Lewis table. That’s where Bill and Karen placed the “most insane people.” There was a Judy Garland table and Bill’s future mother-in-law didn’t want to sit a the Guy Lombardo table so she was moved to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers table.
The Jerry Lewis Table, me upper left, Downsy upper right.
Bill and Karen get remarried every New Year’s Eve. They have been remarried by a rabbi, priest, minister, Elvis Presley impersonator and Dudeist Priest Boyd McDowell as a nod to the cult 1998 film “The Big Lebowski.”
Bill has two children from a previous marriage: William John Linden, IV, 39, who is a switchman for the Montana Railway in Billings and a Cubs fan at heart. Brandi Linden McKoy, 38, is stationed in Norfolk, Va. and has served more than 20 years in the United States Navy. She recently returned from a 10 month tour of Dijabouti, Africa.
One time I went to visit Bill and Karen in their ranch house in Hancock Park in old Hollywood. Bill reminded me, “You and I went to the Janis Joplin hotel (she suffered a fatal heroin overdose at the Landmark, now Highland Gardens Hotel). Forest Lawn cemetery. I met John Fogerty with you. We went to the original Bob’s Big Boy. We got a lot done in one day.” Bill never forgets a good time. When Bill and Karen returned from Hollywood in 1998, Bill snagged a part time job at the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. He once assisted former Sun-Times publisher Marshall Field with his hunting license.
Karen had been friends with the third wife of three-time Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. MacNelly died in 2000 at the age of 52. He had been suffering from lymphoma.
“The four of us would go out on dates and I’d write a couple of jokes for ‘Shoe’,” Bill recalled. “I got paid $25 per joke back then. I have the first collaboration (July 29, 1985) , pen and ink. They don’t draw anymore. They use computers. Then they got divorced and that made all of her friends verboten. I’d still go upstairs of Riccardos’s with Jeff for reubens. He loved my sense of humor. He was a great artist. He looked like Phil Donahue, which we teased him about all the time.”
The first Linden-MacNelly collaboration
One time MacNelly made a cartoon inspired by a moment when he and Bill tried to steal a trophy fish off the wall of Shaw’s Crab House on the near north side of Chicago. Bill recalled, “It was nailed down and we we were soooooo offended that ‘nobody trusts nobody anymore’, we stole a bar stool instead.”
Here is how MacNelly remembered that night (Bill lower left):
After MacNelly died, Bill was brought back on board in the “Shoe” camp as a writer. Bill sends the “Shoe” group 85 gags a week. He calls it a “shut out” if he scores seven strips in a week.
“I write like a mini-screen play,” he said. “Scene: the office. Panel one, Shoe is happy. I only write one or two panels. If it is a Sunday, they pad it out. I have a million joke books. I’ll look at a joke and go, ‘Why is this funny? What is the point of the joke?’ Then I’ll rewrite it. I have million of jokes. Like the ‘homophobic’ joke. When you see a word, then you say where can I go with this? You take the scary word which makes it seems like you’re treading. And then you make it something innocent. Humor is always a twist at the end, or the ‘bump’ as we call it in the gag writing business. You do your 90 degree angle on the set up. The ‘homophobic’ joke has nothing to do with homosexuals whatever. A big part of comedy writing is how you have to surprise them.
“Timing is the most important thing in telling a good joke. Always the shorter the better. Sometimes I see people telling a joke and people’s eyes are glazed over. Get in and get out. I listened to George Carlin albums. Woody Allen. I was lucky enought to see Woody Allen do his stand up at Mister Kelly’s (now the site of Gibson’s steak house in Chicago) in 1967. I asked a question from the audience and he answered it. He wasn’t stand up too long and he went right into the movies.”
Bill stands up for his 881 friends on Facebook. He puts the yuck in Zuckerberg. Bill makes a minimal six Facebook posts a day, generally starting with a “Shoe” cartoon that he wrote, a couple of good jokes and a wacky news story. “I’m on Facebook to amuse, entertain, inform, appall and delight,” he said. “I only try to make fun of a bad situation and turn it around to a lighter thing. Facebook is my water cooler.”
Bill designed the invite for my birthday party at Jimmy Wong’s in the Loop. Like Riccardo’s, Jimmy Wong’s now belongs to the ages.
Earlier this month, 166 friends attended Bill’s virtual “Four Years on Facebook Anniversary Party.” There were long punch lines. His annual “Bean-A-Palooza” in Millennium Park was born from the virtual party. “I wanted to physically meet my friends,” he explained. “We’re going to have the fourth one this summer (June 8, 2013). I get more people every year. People meet each other. It’s become a great thing.”
Bean-A-Palooza is always on the Saturday afternoon of the Chicago Blues Festival. The bluesy timing is the sweetest of contradictions for a man who makes everyone smile.