Culture Rover

#90 - Windy City Music History Mystery

Lurking in the depths of the Chicago Reader on occasion are cartoons by Steven Krakow a.k.a. Plastic Crimewave that chronicle the "Secret History of Chicago Music."

Slightly hallucinatory, slightly nostalgic, these cartoons engage in acts of historical recovery. Each consisting of one panel, they portray a long-lost musician from Chicago: Magic Slim, Son and Lover, and others. As the comic puts it, these are "pivotal Chicago musicians that somehow have note gotten their just dues."

What's intriguing about these cartoons is their interest in "secret history." In the spirit of Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death's Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll From Elvis to Oasis or R. Crumb's old-timey string band and blues comics, these cartoons are not quite sure they want to come out of the haze of historical lostness. With their homemade feel -- off-kilter lines, crammed notation, slightly-distorted lithograph-like figures, and crooked bubble and shadow-box letters, these "secret histories" want at once to stay hidden and come back out into the light.

They raise the whole notion of "secret history." As a concept, "secret history" has been adopted by cultural critics of the Gnostic variety, such as Greil Marcus. At first glance, there is a fundamental tension between the two halves of that phrase, "secret history." Secrets remain behind the scenes, hidden, private, unofficial, rumor, unconfirmed. History assumes an official role. It goes up on the podium, gets inscribed in the freizes, flashes up there on the screen for all to see.

But the more you think about it, secrets by their very nature want to contradict their own invisibility, their own secrecy. Within every murmur is a roar. The telos of a secret is not to remain one. That's what makes them so powerful.

Clandestine messages are furtive -- they want to burst forth. Especially in the age of mass culture, secrets and history start to blur together. When the government keeps state secrets from the public and the most private of acts are increasingly fodder for celebrity and publicity, something is going on.

What does this all have to do with a comic about the "Secret History of Chicago Music"?

To me, from the murky realms of memory, these musicians appear like secret agents. They arrive from historical paths not taken. They are messengers from an alternative collective consciousness whose dreamscape contains all the losers of history. I picture them all living there, like Shoeless Joe in the cornfields of "build-it-they-will-come" Iowa.

As in a film such as Field of Dreams, the deeper desire is not that these musicians will step into the glare of our world. Magic Slim and Friend and Lover are not about to take center stage at the Super Bowl.

No, the dream is that they will pull us into their world. The pleasure of Plastic Crimewave's comics are not that these vanished stars of Chicago music will take their rightful place in history, but rather that we will take our longed-for place by losing ourselves in their secret mystery.

2 March 06

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