The Panic Button
There was a period of a few years where my 300 dollar a month apartment in the heart of Lincoln Park became the headquarters for Panic Button Records. I lived and worked amongst the lower upper class pristine jogging muscle bound men and women who twice daily walked their 2.3 dogs down to and within the restricted confines of a bounded hound infested gated mud pit. It was a block away from my apartment. The whole block smelled like wet dog and fresh shit. The place is still there now. It’s called Wiggly Park. Prior to its dogginess the pun named park used to be a playground for kids to swing, slide, and run freely. I guess now it’s better for the children to search for communal entertainment within their video games or in the middle of the busy city streets.
Every day after hours upon hours of delirious label work in front of a computer I would pause for a few minutes, walk outside to fetch a soda pop at the White Hen (Which now no longer exists.) and talk about nothing important with the few homeless drunkards that lived outside the church down the block. In some ways I felt akin to these homeless ones. I still can’t describe why, but I felt... well... “at home” with them talking about nothing in particular. Perhaps I was taking my friend Peter’s place gibbering to whom most in that neighborhood would not even consider giving a second glance. Peter always felt at ease amongst the down and out. They make me feel uncomfortable but I feel they are a part of me too.
Douglas, who resembled a joyful Charles Manson, would summer in Chicago and hitchhike to the Carolina’s in the winter. He would sit in the alley right outside my back door. He was always curious as to what I was dong with my time. I’d talk to him about the music business, often thinking he wouldn’t remember a word because he seemed to fade in and out, asking questions twice. Yet the next day he would continue the conversation with me right where we left off, somehow with the correct information and starting point still tucked in the confines of his alcohol addled brain. I have long since moved away from Lincoln Park, but I still frequent the sidewalks where Douglas lived, and I don’t see him anymore. His drinking got worse every season I saw him, and his skin went from rebelliously tanned, to leathery, to covered with scabs and fresh blood. I can only hope he retired from wandering the streets and permanently settled in the Carolinas.
I had inherited the apartment from the aforementioned Peter Flynn, who is now dead. He wasn’t dead when I inherited the apartment. He gave it to me when he and his wife moved to New Orleans, her to sell art on the streets, he to play guitar in the pubs, drink incessantly, then to hang himself one afternoon and finally, to die. I am practicing being callous with the mentioning of his death. I went through the anger, the mourning, and the sadness. It’s time for a change. You see, the actual death of a person never goes away. The death is immortal as long as one person bothers to think of them or to transplant them into the head of another. Anyone is able to transform a death into whatever they want, whenever they want, for as long as they want. I am expressing my inalienable rights as an impermanent bundle of bones, nerves, and flesh to constantly transpose the fuck out of his death.
While Peter was still living he inherited the Lincoln Park apartment from some other drunken dude (And I mean dude like cowboy, not like hipster stoner.) who is probably now dead, or living on the streets and dying. The three floor house was owned by three old Greek siblings, sitting out their days in the real estate office on the bottom floor. They were old and visibly shrinking. I don’t think I have ever seen such old people running a business. They moved very slowly around their office engaging in small talk, pulling papers out of file cabinets, handing them to each other, and then putting them back in other similar file cabinets.
Since our rent was so low in that one building it was an unspoken rule that you didn’t complain about needing anything fixed. You just did it yourself. Although for some external repairing they did have an ex-convict handle the work. He was horrible at maintenance, but I liked him nonetheless, and, he needed the job. My three Greek Landlords could give a shit about making a profit anymore. They seemed quite content to use our measly rents to just barely cover their taxes for the property, even though they could have sold that lot for millions of dollars. They worked hard, but really they just wanted to have a place to go, to give themselves a bit of meaning during their last days. I liked them very much. I think of them often.
This gentlemen’s agreement of sorts, no one ever signed a rental contract, gave a few lucky artists a place to live for cheap in the middle of one of the most expensive neighborhoods to rent in the city of Chicago. The entire seven years I lived there my rent was never raised once. That is until a bunch of stupid frat boys held a party on a staircase a few blocks away. The porch collapsed and some of their drunken bodies fell three flights to their deaths. I do have sympathies for all those who passed away in this tragic accident, but come on, these are the same back alleys and porches used in the movie The Untouchables, because they were the most fucking old and decrepit in the entire city! At least I knew the staircase and porch in my unit was too rickety for parties involving more than two guests.
After the porch collapse incident the city sent a team of inspectors around the area to investigate potential hazards. They put up signs condemning dangerous staircases. My building was one of them. The landlords built a new staircase and three intersecting porches. They were all newer looking but just as dangerous as the old ones. One thing lead to another. The rent went up. I had to move out. Soon after my move a ginormous wrecking ball brought the building down into a heap of junk, then a bulldozer came along and leveled it to the ground. It was instantly replaced with a sky-high slew of exuberantly expensive condos.
In my apartment there was a kitchen, a bathroom and an everything-else-room. I slept on an old worn out carpet in the middle of the everything-else-room. After awhile of getting rug burns from tossing and turning on the hard floor, I purchased, at a yard sale, a cushion from a pool front lawn chair. I used this for my bed until I moved out. Each night I would unroll it on the floor like you would a beach towel. I used to say that waking up wasn’t so difficult because it wasn’t that very different from being awake. My prostrate body was just at a slightly different angle from one moment to the next.
This is how I arose every morning to begin my day working at my computer in the kitchen/office but most importantly this is how I arose on a pair of very similar days. In the vast configuration of time, these two days, were merely two distinctly separate mornings, but because of particular events unfolding and given significance they are now forever linked. I received a friendly business related phone call from The Lillingtons on one of these occasions. On the other occasion I received a distressed phone call from the wife of Peter Flynn.
Both relationships were music oriented. The differences were that the Lillingtons were a pop punk band. They were fans of Screeching Weasel and on our record label, Panic Button Records. The label was ran completely by the two most famous of Screeching Weasels’ members, Ben Weasel, and me, John Jughead. To Ben and I The Lillingtons were to be the saviors of the punk scene. They were destined to become a well-mannered explosion out of the depths of Wyoming. Three unassuming friends that had nothing better to do than listen to and to play three chord punk rock. Well actually all three of them worked pretty hard jobs, in caves and ditches, in oil, and in grocery lines. Next to the Manges Cody, Corey, and Tim of The Lillingtons were my favorite people I have ever met through Punkrock. (Discounting Gub Conway, Lizzie Eldredge, Phillip Hill and Nathan Bice.)
Peter Flynn was a folk musician from Portland Maine. Who talked like an East Coast Sailor but sang like an Irish Drunkard. We met years before when we worked together at a crown books in the suburbs. When his first wife left him everything fell to pieces. He went back to drinking. He quit Crown Books, got a job at another discount bookshop and lived in the warehouse. Then he was fired from that job. He moved deep into the city of Chicago, met his second wife and pulled his fragmented life back together. Peter had always had a few pieces missing so it was no surprise that he would eventually go awry. He maintained an ever increasing need for liquor and drugs. He respected me mostly as a playwright and we barely ever talked about Screeching Weasel. We were dear friends who would do anything for each other. He was a valuable critic and lover of my work, and I was his basement recording engineer, confidante, and unwitting supporter of his self destruction.
[Working at Crown books was my last Job. More specifically it was the last time that I would work for a Boss. When Peter and I worked there it was pretty great. He and I loved books. He was the assistant manager, and I was just an employee. Our boss was a woman named Celeste, who also had a great love for books. We had to stock the shelves with the usual big sellers, but we always snuck in some independent publishers and old classics that were quickly fading away. I had been in Screeching Weasel already but it was a passion project then, and it ate all the money Ben and I were making. All of my money went towards paying for our early recordings and tours. Between rent and the band, I lived on, no kidding, twelve bucks a week. Then Peter left Crown Books. Soon after he quit, the higher ups in Crown restructured all their stores. They removed Celeste. They brought in a more corporate regime. The manager and assistant knew very little about books. The manager aspired to work at a store across the street called Foot Locker. Which I have no judgement against. We all need shoes. But what the hell was he doing running a bookstore? One day while I was cutting open a box of Danielle Steele novels he put down the phone and ran back into the children’s section. He was there for a few minutes. He came back bemused, shaking his head. I asked him what he was looking for.
He said, “A book called Don The Coyote. I figured it would be in the children section.”
“Do you mean Don Quixote?”
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“It’s in classics. It’s a classic!”
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with not knowing this book. But if you are going to be a manager at a book store you should know the name of a 400 year old document that is one of the most internationally acclaimed novels EVER published.
I stayed on a bit longer. Until one day they approached me with a blue apron.
“You have to wear this from now on.”
He held it out for me to grab.
“What, are we going to start baking the books instead of reading them?”
“You have to wear this.”
And then I ended the conversation by saying, “No I don’t.”
He walked away.
Quite a few months prior to this incident, I took a few weeks off to tour. Screeching Weasel had reunited for the second time and had gone to California to record our first recording for Lookout Records, My Brain Hurts. By the time of the the blue apron incident the record had begun to do very well. Lookout records caught the wave of our success and rereleased Boogada Boogada Boogada. Boogada is by far the largest selling record of our catalog, and 90 percent of those royalties are split between me and Ben. All the other records which followed up till near the end of that Screeching Weasel the percentages were more democratically split between the musicians. That pay structure is still in place to this day, though I hardly see a check. But the year those two records came out on Lookout my income went from 10, 000 dollars a year to 60,000 dollars. This boost in royalties, Peter having left, and the blue aprons contributed to the moment it struck me one day while stocking John Grisham novels, that I didn’t need to work for someone any longer. I told the manager I was going home and never coming back.]
The Lillingtons phone call, which came first, was a short conversation with Cody, the singer, guitarist, and main songwriter. All my conversations with Cody were always short. Often he would call me from the grocery store he worked at in his home town, Newcastle Wyoming, population 3,485. We liked each other very much, but we are both men of very little words, and conversations between two men of little words are usually incredibly brief and to the point, like talking in shorthand. Plus usually half of the time was spent joking about how horrible, insular, and petty the pop punk scene had gotten over the years. He would often inform me about what band’s demo they had just launched off the windshield of their van while driving on the interstate. Those cd’s really take off. Often they would judge how much they liked a band by how far the cd flew after it was launched. They were more critical of music than I could ever be, yet from them it seemed...acceptable and perhaps even intuitively accurate.
They had just started a tour. I always got the sense that they hated touring but loved the music they played. This is a feeling I know too well but do not feel myself. I was getting pretty sick of being in the office/slash house day after day with no hope of ever touring with my own band, so I asked Cody if I could join them on the road and play second guitar. I did a little fancy footwork convincing him that it was better to have two guitars live than just one. Cody could concentrate better on solos and singing, and the rhythm section would hold strong. It IS something I believe but I probably said it then just so that I could plant the idea of them letting me join them. (You see at that time, I had no idea that to other bands it would be “an honor” for me to play with them. To me it was just cool to be able to play with these new exciting bands and to be on the road without the pressures of being in charge.)
We agreed to meet on the road. These special boys from Wyoming were happy to have me aboard. And what these boys should know is that this no brainer opportunity they gave me has implanted their personalities on my brain for the rest of my life. I hung up the phone and immediately made a reservation to rent a car for the next day. We had no funds to get me a laptop so I stayed up the whole night printing out any documents I would need on the road to keep the business running. I burned a cd of all their songs and I learned all of them while driving 19 hours alone from Chicago to Austin Texas. I only stopped for gas. I arrived at the venue an hour before the first show never having actually played any of the songs on a guitar, only in my mind. I turned the road ahead of me into a fret board. It helped to keep me awake. The calm excitement and immediate acceptance of whatever I could do for them on stage that night intensified my responsibility to help them sound good. I don’t recall if I made any mistakes and I don’t think any of the four of us even cared. In retrospect it was like a magical dream.
END OF PART I
Soon to come:
The Old Pheasant Hotel, Dueling Pianos, and Drinking with Corey
and The Death of a Friend.