Rick Kogan's Sidewalks
3:45 PM EDT, March 15, 2013
It may not rank with literature's greatest opening lines — “Call me Ishmael”; “It was a pleasure to burn”; or “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”* — but the first sentences of Nicholas Tremulis' new 10-page memoir are undeniably arresting: “When I was 4 years old, I wanted to be music. Not play it. Be it.”
So begins his captivating “For the Baby Doll,” a small slice of the musician's life.
This is accompanied by a new 11-cut CD by the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra and a foreword (misspelled “foreward” — “I spell like a 5-year-old,” Tremulis says) by novelist Michael Thomas, who writes, “There's a difference between dwelling in the past and remembering it. What Nick has done, what he always does, is evoke a personal and communal history.”
Tremulis calls this a “record-book,” and its cover features the iconic photo by Art Shay of a naked Simone de Beauvoir facing the mirror and fixing her hair in the bathroom of her lover, writer Nelson Algren.
“Writing this was absolute hell,” Tremulis says. “I started it about 10 times, and it took forever to finish. But it was nice to be scared to death, to challenge myself. It was like writing my first song, but it's not something I want to do again. I just want to say, to write, ‘Oh baby, yeah, yeah.' This prose stuff is for the birds.”
Born in 1960 and raised in Northbrook, Tremulis grew up with a jazz-piano-playing dad, a blues-singing mom and a cousin who played blues guitar.
At 13, he writes, “the pull of the city grew stronger and stronger in me,” and what he found when he traveled south in search of music was a Chicago that “wasn't the leisure town/playground that it is today. … It was still a factory town mapped out by color and ethnicities.”
Do not be misled. His story is firmly planted in New York City, which comes alive in its pages. In 1980, he took a 21-hour bus trip to New York and settled into a room at the legendarily artsy-sleazy Chelsea Hotel for $28 a night. Visiting the East Village for the first time, he writes, “was like walking into my dreams. Everyone looked like they were in a band.”
There are many adventures, much music, some drugs and frequent stops at the place that gives the book its title, the Baby Doll Lounge. It was a topless dance club where he and others found “a smallish neighborhood tavern-type of place you'd see in any older part of town” and “a sense of, if not family, community.” And on Friday afternoons: “free hamburgers with every drink!”
Eventually he came back to Chicago, signed with Island Records and released two albums. Big things were expected, but it didn't work out that way.
“I am always being told, ‘Maybe you should have done this, done that.' But I am not ruthless by nature. I have never been willing to step on or over anybody,” he writes.
He has had what most would consider a solid career.
Some highlights include playing with Rolling Stone Keith Richards at the guitarist's home; collaborating with beat poet Gregory Corso and with Rick Danko only days before the Band bassist's death in 1999; running from 2000 to 2005 a series of “Waltz” concerts at Metro benefiting Neon Street for Homeless Youth and featuring such performers as Billy Corgan, Marianne Faithfull and Steve Earle; and 52/Reasons, in which he wrote and performed a song a week for 52 weeks and posted each one for sale online.
And, of course, performing and recording with his Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra.
“It gets a little harder and harder every year to keep pushing on,” says the husband and father of two. “If you are doing this, you don't have a 401k plan. You are living from week to week. But I still get to make music. I'm not looking for hit records. I just want to be able to make them for the rest of my life.
“Look, when I was 13 all I wanted to be was the world's greatest guitarist, but over the many years I have felt the influence of other artists, not just musicians but writers, painters, Art Shay … and I increasingly feel that I am part of that great stream that is art.”
He teaches at Columbia College and, along with artist/musician Jon Langford, is host of “The Eclectic Company” on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on WXRT-FM 93.1. He and his orchestra next take the stage, along with Willie Nile, March 26 at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St.
The “record-book” will be for sale, and its songs will fill the air.
One of them, “Lost Without You,” goes like this:
“When I see you coming down the street, with a step that's so alive / As if the ground beneath your feet, welcomes a gentle rain / Then something in me deep inside, begins to open every door / And I know that I am lost without you / If I should die tonight, if it's my final hour / Please know that every word I've sung is true.”
* From “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury and “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Rick Kogan hosts “The Afternoon Shift” weekdays from 2-4 p.m. on WBEZ-FM firstname.lastname@example.org
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