The coming of wisdom


Like spring flies the days buzz past me; irritating but intriguing. I swat the air wildly, not knowing why. One strikes my open hand. My fingers close immediately around the mass of senseless energy. The vibration stops. I look, because I must. A sound larger than itself heralds the fly’s escape. Out of habit, I wave it away. It’s the downtrodden and the rich who have identity. Not me. Plastered against my palm, the fly is oppressed; suffocated by the world. When my hand opens, prosperity is granted; freedom to go where it likes, to pursue its preference, to try its wings. The others are me; not oppressed, but not able to fly. For the sake of a wrinkled wing or defective leg that impedes take-off, they are doomed to maneuver among vagaries. Undefined by oppression or wings, goals remain unclear, paths are left un-chosen, and life eludes. The irritating buzz comes close and again I strike the transparency.

Like spring flies the days buzz past me

.Railroad Tracks


A brilliant writer once started his novel with the words “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. My wish is that my life was a good balance of times. Living can be so ephemeral, like vapor…dissipating. People gone from my sight. Not handling situations quite right. I keep moving; otherwise life will run me over. 

It’s been over three months since I left my beloved Chicago. 

ImageSunrise from my 19th floor Dearborn St.. apartment in Printers Row

In my years lived, in the darkest of times, a gem has glowed and opened a path that led to a new chapter. The memory of my beloved’s words linger on,  “Alfie, open up and let things pass through you”. No blockage. Regrets and uncertainty only hinder or at least, slow down the process.

In the wake of the news of Seamus Heaney’s death, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, I searched his quotes and in the well of his brilliance, I found “I have begun to think of life as a series of ripples widening out from an original center.” I am thankful for the origin of my center, because it casts ever-widening ripples allowing me to proceed forward to a new opportunity of creativity. I believe we are all built for a specific task in life, and mine is to produce new and creative ideas each day and thankfully my work life has allowed me the opportunity to do just that.

I moved from Chicago to Madison to pursue a new venture, a second career, managing The Tip Top Tavern. I feel excited and can hardly wait for the challenge to begin, but I lament the abandonment of my life as a filmmaker and photographer. I say… make the time and you can have both, perhaps, but my profile has changed, because my outlook has changed…it has to for me to pursue this new quest for creativity. I know it…and I look towards this new chapter with the excitement of new ways to think, work and create, after all, that is the only thing that really matters. In the words of Federico Fellini, “You exist only in what you do.” Image

I reflect…and the fire shoots from the glass of wine in front of me and through the top of my head indicating my free flowing movement forward, as my youth waves good-bye and openly says, “Welcome to the new chapter”. As always, I embrace it with an open heart and a new set of ideas to explore and implement. Hope to see you all at The Tip Top. 


Fellow filmmaker and friend Dave and I arrived in Guatemala City on the eve of November 6, election night.  At the airport, Alba, who was my daughter’s baby sitter between 1990-1993, picked us up and drove us to our destination, Antigua. A Spanish Colonial city and once the cultural capital of Central America
Alba with my baby Eva in 1991.

Dave’s brother Bill, runs Dyslexia Libros in Antigua, a used multilingual bookstore that is connected to Café No Se, which is the home of Illegal Mezcal, a handcrafted small batch mezcal. Is there a pattern here, Dyslexic Books, Café I Don’t Know and Illegal Mezcal.
Bill in Dyslexia Libros
Dave, Bill and Don Julio

Our first full day in Antigua, enjoying the sun in Central Park and immediately after I learned to say pueda tomar un photo (can I take your photo), I felt the park bench move, I looked at the person next to me to see if he was causing the shake, “earthquake” he said. After about a minute of four to five horizontal shifts of the earth, the tremor stopped and the water from the fountain gushed forward with force, like a wave.
Fountain in Central Park
Raphael, “Earthquake” he said. “Pueda tomar un photo” I asked.
Newspaper headline “Terremoto” (Earthquake).
Me with Jose, who kept our shoes shiny.

 Breakfast, consisting of a large bowl of fruit, was at La Casaca. They had great cappuccino and a wonderful view of the square.

Bill, me and Dave at the rooftop of La Casca.
On Sunday, the 11th, we headed to the capital and at 5:30 A.M. Monday we were picked up by Lorena Calvo, owner of Finca Bohemia, a coffee farm, about a three-hour drive.
Lorena’s house at Finca Bohemia.
There we produced a short documentary about the farm. Lorena does not use any pesticides on her plants and she organizes and plants the farm in a way that is friendly to the animals. She plants indigenous trees that provide shade and also of different heights so the birds have a choice of elevation. We learned how the coffee is picked, washed, sorted and dried. Lorena was a very gracious host and we truly enjoyed meeting her and loved our time on the farm. Although we acted as most men and did not listen to her caution of applying insect repellent, stupid, yes, manly, yes. I wish the feminine side had kicked in this one time.
The kids don’t actually do any of the picking, but they accompany their parents.
Israel weighing the picked coffee beans.
Drying washed coffee.
Lorena explaining the coffee process to Dave.
Lorena with coffee plant.
Chapel at Finca Bohemia.
Dave, Lorena and me, before heading back to Antigua.
Volcan de Fuego, we stopped to see the once hot lava close up on our way back to Antigua.
By Wednesday afternoon we were back in Antigua and the missions that we had set for our selves had been accomplished. Find an ATM, a cigar store, the best cappuccino in Antigua, great rum, excellent park bench and filming Finca Bohemia. And little Jose kept our shoes shined and looking good through all of our exploration.
Produce market.
The band performing at the produce market.
Mayan woman weaving.
Lit up “Chicken Bus” at night.
With time on our hands, we decided to also produce a short film about Dyslexia Libros and the valuable service it provides to the world travelers that were so prevalent in Antigua.
Some friends that we met while at Antigua.
Angie, owner of Angie Angie.
Andreas and Leo, who work at Angie Angie
Laura, who owns Cactus Grill.
Carmen, who works at Cactus Grill.
Bruce, of Meson Panza Verde
Amara and Dolce, who run Mi Casa, where we stayed.
Val, having ravioli with Asiago cheese at Angie Angie.
Frank, who has an organic farm. The passion fruit was as delicious as the view.
Antigua street with volcano in background’
We returned to Chicago on Tuesday, the 13th of November. This was a truly great trip. Our plans are to return as soon as possible to produce more film and photography.
Both of the short films, Finca Bohemia and Dyslexia Libros will be completed and posted on the web shortly.

I new message, 1 new voicemail

I had to listen to the message a couple of times to understand what was being said through the tearful voice. “Rick is in the hospital, they’re moving him tonight to hospice…”

By the time this blog is published, my friend Rick Janes will be just a pile of ashes. This kind, gentle, creative person was my friend for over forty years. Now, I wish that I had spent more time with him. Life and its commitments have a way of putting a lot of time in between contacts. At times a couple of years would go by, but we would just started talking, as if it were a conversation without any gaps.

Finding a way to write about the death of Rick Janes has been an impossible task for me. Even though I have known him for over forty years, I really have never known much about his life. What I know about was his humanity, his talent and unique outlook on the world. I feel I need to pay our friendship a tribute by writing about him and the only way I can write about him is through my eyes rather than his accomplishments.

How I met Rick. In the mid 1960’s I attended YMCA HIGH SCHOOL, known as Central Y. It was a school made up of teachers and students who could not deal with traditional education. The school lacked in most areas of education, but was extremely rich in literature. It’s where I was introduced to Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens… as a bonus, classes were from 8:30-12:30 and it was located in the heart of downtown Chicago, which had a plethora of movie theaters, and I frequented all of them, but that’s a story for another day.

The student body at Central Y was made up of a mishmash of Chicago neighborhoods. We were the long hairs (before the word Hippie was coined), the south side greasers, a small contingency of Hyde Park intellectuals, members of the Black Power movement and several nondescript pill poppers and glue sniffers. Sometimes the Hyde Parkers would mingle with the long hairs, especially if Bob Dylan’s name came up in conversation, but other than that, the student body of Central Y was a prime example of what Martin Luther King called Chicago, the most segregated city in America.

I was having coffee in the YMCA cafeteria when I first met Rick Janes. He was not a student at the Y; he wasn’t a student anywhere. Without introducing himself, he started mumbling to me in his soft low voice. He was funny, smart and sarcastic, and we immediately became friends.

I found that he was a guitar player, which our band needed; I invited him to rehearse with us that night. His playing and personality suited us.

Me, George, (back row, Russ, Rick) to the right, Steve, he was not a member of the band or even a musician, but our manager set up the photo shoot and we were without a drummer so we asked Steve to stand in (it made sense at the time).

Musically, it was a time of great discovery, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and the Chicago influences of Howlin Wolf, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Junior Wells and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The jazz world was exploding with the new sounds of John Coltrane and the Avant Garde movement of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which is still going strong in Chicago. I think our musical search and trying to find our uniqueness is what bonded Rick and I forever. We spent hours upon hours of just the two of us improvising. There is something very intimate about communicating musically.

By 1968 the world had changed for me, it was time to pursue my other interests of photography and filmmaking in earnest. After film school I moved to California for a five-year period and lost track of Rick.

1980, back in Chicago, I ran into Rick and he talked me into starting a band again. I saw that the Cubby Bear was empty in the winter, and this was a pretty undeveloped Wrigleyville at the time, I asked if they would consider putting music in there, they said yes. I called the great Chicago vocalist, Jeanne Carroll and asked her if she would join us, “oh… and if you know of any piano players, bring one along” I said. I borrowed a bass, which I had not played in over ten years, and without rehearsal, we met at the Cubby Bear, Jeanne called out songs and we played. Jeanne brought Danny Riperton to play piano. Danny was Minnie Riperton’s brother of the Rotary Connection fame.

L-R Rick, J.A., Danny, Jeanne, Me, Tom

It was actually a very interesting band, but no organization. Other than Jeanne, we also featured George “Wild Child” Butler, a great harmonica player and one of the most soulful musicians I have ever met.

I never regained my musical abilities so I soon left the band. I lost track of everybody with the exception of Rick.

This is was the period when I really started to get to know him as a man and as a creative artist. Beyond his great musical ability Rick produced some unique and wonderful art.

This piece hangs in my apartment. It’s called Monk Fish. It’s the head of Thelonious Monk in a body of a fish surrounded by a keyboard. I think its brilliant outsider art.

This is from a note Rick sent me after my wife died.

no one really knows what it takes to make up a star

distant in the blackness of space, dangling in the void

and when we stare into that deep void, so far away, we may think, nothing is lost, only transformed, but the likeness of you will never again appear at my doorstep.

Anytime someone close to me dies I think about how I have lived my life, have I done enough, have I achieved anywhere near what I wanted to achieve, I think not. I remembered a poem by Marie Howe I heard last April (national poetry month). It’s about her brother’s death and how we go on living.

What the Living Do, by Marie Howe

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up   waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking, I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.  But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living. I remember you.

I will miss you my friend.

June 10, 2012


I was at the Chicago Blues Festival today. I specifically went because I saw that Lurrie Bell was performing.

From 1980 to 1985 I ran a jazz club on the north side of Chicago, but on Sunday nights, the music was blues. The band was called The Sons of the Blues and it featured harmonica player Billy Branch and guitarist Lurrie Bell, son of the legendary blues harmonica player Carey Bell.

Lurrie was a most amazing young blues guitarist and I thought for certain that he would be the next Buddy Guy. Most memorable about Lurrie was his performance of the WAR song Slippin into Darkness. It was the first time I heard Lurrie sing. The emotion he expressed in his voice is more than I can describe in words, he seemed to have such a deep understanding of the words and what they conveyed, the fear and the ease of slipping into darkness.

Years after I had left that business, I wondered whatever happed to Lurrie. On a Sunday morning, reading a Chicago newspaper, I saw a very long article about Lurrie and his battle with mental illness. I thought about the possibility of producing a documentary about him. I researched and found that he was married to a woman named Susan, who had brought him back from the darkness and helped him regain his life. After speaking to Susan, who was very protective of Lurrie, she said that they had recently lost a child and she feared Lurrie might be too fragile to relive certain parts of his life.

Lurrie didn’t perform the blues on Sunday, he said, I’ve been playing the blues since I was five and will play it until I die, today I would like to play Gospel, is that alright? After the first couple of songs he checked with the audience again to see if it was okay that he was playing Gospel. He said it was his way of praising the Lord for all that he has been given. The Gospel songs are on his latest recording The Devil Ain’t Got No Music

Susan Greenberg, Lurrie’s wife, died of cancer in 2007. Not only has he found a way to move on, but has enabled his music to lift his pain, and he has found peace, beauty and the strength to grow.

It’s been a long journey since the days of The Piano Man Club on north side Chicago, watching Lurrie on stage at the Chicago Blues Festival reminded me of my own travels through the years. We’re both gray, overweight, perhaps even wrought with sorrow but we have found a way to compartmentalize and find joy in producing our work.

All of this made me curious about another musician I had not seen in many years, Jeanne Carroll, the First Lady of Chicago Blues. Armed with the Internet I found that Jeanne died of a heart attack in 2011 while performing in Brussels, but that’s a story for another day.