Blues Festival Ruminations

This morning, as I drove into Chicago for the Blues Festival, I heard that Anthony Bourdain had killed himself. I found the news disturbing. I would not go so far as to describe him as “my hero,” but I did admire the way he appeared to live his life – exploring, experiencing, learning, and doing. A radio DJ spoke about him, and I paraphrase:

“People will wonder how someone who has lived such a full life, and had attained such success, could just end it like that, and be so ungrateful for what they have. But the truth is that sometimes it only takes a moment of irrational darkness and despair to bring a person to that course of action.”

During the drive, I had also listened to a podcast episode from Henry Rollins, another individual who I greatly admire for his work ethic, his wanderlust, and his enthusiasm for new experiences. He spoke of the work that went into making an album and conducting a tour as an independent band. I cannot help but find inspiration in stories of people who are dedicated and prolifically creative, and his never fail to inspire.

I arrived in Chicago thinking about that. Chicago is my hometown, where I grew up and spent more than half my life. I find that being here puts me in a melancholy mood. I lament the passing of the good times, yet somehow hold onto the sorrows of the bad times. So with that phenomenon in play, and the troubling news of Bourdain’s suicide, the blues had me as I walked in the rain to the subway station.

I love riding the “L.” A string of rattling metal crates rockets along a steel rail, careening across and underneath the city, seeming to barely hang on as the cars buck and sway. I love looking out the windows at the backsides of graffitied buildings. Graffiti is like a force of nature. The artists are unstoppable, relentless, and their artwork is ubiquitous. The paint is like some kind of natural mineral deposit or stain, a distressed patina laid down by years of exposure to the elements. And then the real wear-and-tear begins: the erosion that tears down what humans have built. The painted walls slowly crumble and wiry weeds take hold, reclaiming the concrete as it steadily degrades to dust.

When I arrived at Millennium Park, it was still drizzling. I walked right up to the first stage I came to. A small group of blues fans was gathered, listening to a solo set by 75-year-old bluesman Jimmy Burns. His aging fingers seemed to labor at his fretwork, but they still knew where to go. And his voice was strong. His performance was magnificent. This is Chicago blues. It’s a form of music in which its pioneers, and its veteran practitioners are revered rather than ridiculed and advised to “hang it up.” Later, we watched another veteran blues singer (whose name I never learned) belting it out in front of a younger, wailing band. The term “multigenerational” somehow brings to mind an image of apprehensive grade school kids reluctantly reading stories to sleepy eyed elderly nursing home patients for extra-credit. But this was a true multi-generational, and multi-ethnic experience. The singer mingled with the adoring crowd, and the band was absolutely jumping. The clouds had parted and the sun shone down. It was an experience I was glad for, and would have missed had I elected to stay home.

I met a man named “Dancing Bob,” an acquaintance of my sister. He was dancing by himself on the lawn in front of the main stage. We spoke for awhile, as he jiggled from foot-to-foot, never standing still. A slender, grey-bearded gent, Bob told me that he would be retiring in a week, and he would spend his free time writing his story, and penning songs for his friends. He has been going out to live music venues several times a week for many years, spending hours out on the dance floor each night. He plans to keep on doing that. He said that he never really cared what other people thought about him, and now and this age, that is more true than ever.

I got on the subway and headed home, thinking about what all these voices said to me today. I am inspired to live my life fully, to create prodigiously, and to not give a flying fig what anybody else thinks. This is not as easy as it sounds. I tend towards inertia, and I do care what other people think. The former is unfortunate, and the latter is natural (I think) but I believe both tendencies require some strategies to keep their negative results at bay. I will also think about what befell Anthony Bourdain and other like him, who despite their immersion in full-throttle living, still fell prey to moments of darkness which led to irrational and irrevocable actions.

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