Michael Lapchick is a happily married entrepreneur who runs a successful catalog design firm in River North and owns a spanking new duplex in West Town. He appears about as stable and content as anyone you'd care to meet. But scratch the surface and you'll find the next T-Bone Burnett itching to get out.
Unlike many folks with the same itch, Lapchick has had a brush or two with the big time. After nearly 15 years of chasing fame from New York to LA and back, he said to hell with it and moved to Montana. Six years ago he came to Chicago, where, except for a gig teaching guitar at the Old Town School, he put music on the back burner in order to get his company off the ground. But a year and a half ago he found himself with enough cash on hand to build a state-of-the-art home recording studio in his basement, and this summer, upon learning that his wife, Wendy Keller, was expecting their first child, Lapchick decided to give his lifelong ambition one more shot before adulthood really set in. And so at age 38 he started a band.
Ironically, Lapchick says he can't stand the sound of his own voice. "If I could go to a voice doctor and say, 'Change my voice, do anything you want to it,' and I would have no idea what it would sound like when he was done, I'd take the operation. That's how much I hate my voice. And whenever I hear someone on the radio who has my quality, a froggy quality, I change the station. I hate the sound. It's probably the biggest gut-wrenching sorrow of my entire existence."
But it doesn't stop him from singing in his new group, the Graves. It's a folk-rock trio with singer Emily Cunningham, whom he met at an open mike at the Old Town School, and guitarist and percussionist Seven Harkey, who's married to one of Keller's friends. "It's all original music, and we're destined," he says with a laugh. "We're gonna make this our last chance."
With their first show just around the corner--they open for Don Conoscenti on Saturday evening at Schubas--they huddle together in the studio to put some final polish on their arrangements. "Do you like the hair?" asks Cunningham, running a hand through her freshly shorn mop top.
"It's your mother's hair," Lapchick answers in a dreadful tone, fishing around for his capo.
"I know. That's why I put all the junk in it."
"So now you look like a suburban lady trying not to look like your mother."
She turns to Harkey, who's sporting a porkpie hat and faded jean jacket. "You got any beer?"
"Oooh, I got...Michelob."
When the rehearsal finally gets under way, the Graves launch into one of Lapchick's tunes, a catchy dirge he sings in a disarmingly sad, throaty voice:
Sometimes it seems to me
I'm just losing time
Through a hole in my pocket
Left somewhere for a younger man to find.
When Lapchick was in fourth grade, he drew a series of pictures entitled "Me in 20 Years." In each picture he holds a guitar.
That same year he acquired an electric bass. "It only had four strings, much less intimidating than six," he explains. By fifth grade he'd moved on to guitar, and by the time he finished middle school he'd assembled his first recording studio in his parents' suburban Philadelphia basement. He was recording as many local acts as he could--some for free, some for pay, depending on how much he liked them. "My friend Jim and I started buying equipment, stealing stuff from school. I had a Dokorder four-track reel-to-reel. It was what the Beatles used for some of their four-track stuff. And we were heavily into drugs. Heavily."
One day, shortly after they moved the studio into an old warehouse a few miles from town, they hopped in Lapchick's Chevy Vega and headed for upstate New York to get a pair of tape-machine heads relapped. "We brought two grams of crank," he says. "This is meth, and this particular recipe formed on the east coast, you couldn't get it in the rest of the country. And it was stuff that, if you did enough of it, your teeth would fall out. This one guy who worked at Tiny T's making sandwiches, his teeth actually fell out from doing crank. So we did it in moderation. Except for this particular trip--about 12 hours up and back--I don't remember driving there or driving back. But the heads were relapped the next day, so I knew I must have gone."
With high school came the obligatory garage band. His was called the Bridge. "We covered America, the Eagles," he recalls. "My big shtick was a tuxedo with sneakers. I thought that was just the coolest thing. Tails, long tails."
After high school Lapchick got a quick associate's degree in the recording arts and then made a beeline for New York City, where he moved in with his grandmother on West 94th. A friend got him a job at Skyline Studios, where he worked for three months with Nile Rodgers on the Thompson Twins' 1985 gold record Here's to Future Days. "My duties? Coil cables, calibrate decks, get Mr. Rodgers his coffee." Still in his teens, he was working alongside one of the country's most successful producers, an opportunity he might have exploited if only he'd been aware of his luck. "I really didn't know who he was, or who the Thompson Twins were," he says. "Just a guy and some band."
When the session ended, Lapchick landed an A and R grunt job at EMI, screening all unsolicited demos sent to the label. "It's really scary that these poor people put all this effort into their stuff, their packaging, and it's opened by some 20-year-old intern," he says. "And man, I would bring some of those tapes back and circulate them to my friends. Just some great shit. Great as in horrible. Horrible." Throughout a long year at EMI, he says, he didn't find a single tape worth recommending.
Meanwhile, the head of A and R took a shine to him. The label wanted to start a program to invest in promising young musicians--those who weren't yet ready for a contract but who had potential--and needed someone to head it up. "He came to me and said, 'We can go one of two ways. Either someone who's been in the business forever, or someone who knows nothing about the business. And you're my pick.'"
So the A and R man arranged for Lapchick to meet with a higher-up--he doesn't remember who. "We had lunch together, just me and him, no one else there. But I was so lost at that point, no sense of identity, no idea how to express anything, just a flailing blob. And the first thing he asked me was, 'Where did you go to college?' And if I'd had any confidence in myself I would have said, 'I didn't go to college. What difference does that make?' But instead I tried to make something up, muttered something about taking some classes at community college, my recording degree...Obviously I didn't get the job. My life would have been totally different if I'd known who I was. It's one of the biggest cringing moments in my life to date."
With his tail between his legs, he went to Los Angeles for a year, working in the A and R department at Atlantic's Scotti Brothers imprint. He hated the job and the city, but he made his first tentative steps as a professional musician there, writing and performing as a folk duo with a friend from New York named Mike Visconti. The act went nowhere.
So they went back to New York, where he and Visconti found a steady stream of gigs in various bars and clubs around the city. To pay rent Lapchick got a job pulling tapes for the music publisher Chappell/Intersong. "If Whitney Houston's people wanted to hear some new songs, they sent a list; I pulled them and sent them off. I got to hear some of the coolest stuff. Elton John was one of their writers, so he would send in tapes of just him at the piano. And he'd say, 'All right, this next song is about blah blah blah,' and he'd play part of a verse, put in position words...and this library was gigantic. I just stayed after hours and listened and listened." He supplemented his income by doing graphic design for retail stores, and on a lark he invented a ten-fingered glove that allowed a couple to hold hands in the winter. The Love Glove sold briskly at Bloomingdales for a time, but Lapchick had to pull it after discovering someone had already patented the idea.
In the late 80s karaoke hit New York, and Lapchick snagged an emcee job at a popular Manhattan club called Sing-a-Long. "I would do a couple songs to get the crowd going, then it was my job to keep them going. The place held 1,200 people, and it was packed every night of the week. High energy, screaming people, lots of drugs. I don't know how many times I heard, 'Man, you got the best job in the world.' Maybe 20 times a night."
One night Phil Donahue's people came in to scope out the scene, and Lapchick was asked to appear on Donahue, as one of six "up-and-coming" singers in New York. "I had a mullet, and I'm not fucking kidding," he says. "Tight jeans. Slouch socks. Reeboks. I was authentic. I don't remember any of the other people on the show, and I haven't seen any of them since. So it turns out none of us were too up-and-coming."
Nonetheless, Natalie Cole's people saw the show and called him up. Cole was hosting Big Break, a televised talent show, and she wanted Lapchick. So he headed out to LA for his second national television appearance. "On every show there's the one white guy. He never wins. It's beautiful. That was me."
Back in New York, Lapchick was winding up his fourth year at Sing-a-Long. "It was such a velvet trap," he says. He had money and lots of attention, but his performing and recording careers had been shoved aside, and artistically he felt stagnant. "And New York was starting to make me hate people. Just boiling right underneath the surface all the time."
Then in a few short months, a series of brutal incidents pushed him over the edge. One day he was driving in Manhattan when two young women started to cross in front of a taxi he was behind. "They could have both made it," he recalls, "but one girl decided to run, and the other hesitated. And she went right over the top of the cab in front of me and landed right in front of my car. So some people ran over and we carried her to the side of the road. And this woman comes to the scene, saying, 'Out of the way! Out of the way! I'm a doctor! Clear the area!' And she looks at the girl, looks in her eyes, goes into her pockets, pulls out money, and takes off. This girl, if not dead, was close to it."
Shortly thereafter he was walking home from work one night and discovered a crowd of people around his building. "There was this guy lying--well, it would have been facedown had he still had a head. Somebody had come up behind him with a shotgun and blew his head clean off. I remember someone saying, 'Look, there's his brains on the window across the street.' And his dog was still walking around, looking for him."
On another whim, Lapchick had been writing a book, The Label Reader's Pocket Dictionary of Food Additives, which would be published by John Wiley & Sons and is still in print today. ("I was dating this girl and she was very health-conscious. She was always reading labels on the side of packages, and I looked around and couldn't find a book you could bring to the supermarket to tell you what's what.") A week later, he knew exactly what he was going to do with his advance.
The last straw came as he was riding his bicycle in front of a cab down a side street. "He's honking and screaming, 'Get the fuck out of the road! Get the fuck out of the road!' He pulls up beside me, and all this time I'd been saving up some spit in my mouth. And I just gobbed all over him, hit him right in the face. And I realized, I don't want to be someone who spits in people's faces. And that's when I moved to Montana."
In Whitefish, Montana, a ski town, Lapchick found room to breathe. Visconti, who by then had made a tidy sum writing jingles, moved out with him. The two dubbed themselves Mike & Mike and started playing around town. "It was wonderful," Lapchick says. "We were a big hit. I had hair down to here." Nonetheless he did have a day job, working for a catalog company called Mac's Place.
Lapchick also fell in love with a girl he'd been fixed up with by a friend of his father's. He followed her to Chicago in 1995, and although the relationship quickly fell apart after the move, he stayed, teaming up with a partner and founding the Chicago Catalog Group, which designs and lays out catalogs for everything from apparel to electronics to airplane parts. He and his partner each invested $250; the company has grown into a million-dollar operation.
Now a wealthy man--at least by struggling musicians' standards--he's finally aware of how lucky he is. His home recording studio, which is largely digital, looks not unlike the bridge of the Enterprise, with equipment to rival the setup of some commercial studios in town. "It's my only true passion, recording," he says. "My ears are my favorite sense." In the past four years he's produced or recorded many local acts, including fingerpicker Eric Lugosch, banjoist Michael Miles, and singer-songwriter Alice Peacock. A collector of ambient sounds, he's also been developing a ten-channel surround-sound listening booth intended for use as a museum installation. "Someone would walk into my room, select a recording, and they'd hear something they'd be able to hear in no other way. It's designed to trick the mind into believing you are really there. Perfectly real."
He's also about to wrap up the first stage of another fairly ambitious project: the Old Town School plans to record all 108 songs in the institution's revered songbook, using as many of the teachers as possible. A best-of should be released next month; an eight-CD box set will follow. Lapchick has agreed to produce and engineer the whole series without charging the school a penny.
His ultimate goal is to sell the Chicago Catalog Group within two years--for enough of a profit that he can play and record music full-time without worrying about money. "It's the same as when I was a teenager," he explains. "If I believe in the project, I don't want to charge. I don't ever want to need the money from recording. I've noticed that art and money don't mix real well. I want to pick and choose my projects and do them because I love them. If I get paid for it, great. But I'd rather make my money elsewhere."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.