By Neal Pollack
Bennett Solomon appeared full-faced and robust on the Belmont el platform, wearing a three-cornered hat covered in buttons, opening his arms wide, singing a Jean Valjean aria from Les Miserables. It was 1993, but he'd been performing this act for years. During the 70s, as Benny the Beach Bum, Bennett would hang around beaches in Rogers Park and Edgewater, singing and doing celebrity impressions. He became a regular feature on el platforms and trains, singing into his shoe, into a baby carriage, or directly into people's faces, and telling tales of his impending discovery by Hollywood agents.
In March 1994 I published a cover story about him in the Reader. Bennett talked incessantly of becoming a great singer, cartoonist, and poet. He wanted to play Jean Valjean on stage. He wanted to write a "24-hour epic British musical." More than anything, he wanted to become famous. The headline of my article called him "The Man Who Would Not Stop Singing."
Bennett told me he had Tourette's syndrome, a complex neurological disorder characterized by repeated involuntary vocal tics. Because of his TS he also suffered from obsessive-compulsive behavior, sleep disorders, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities. His problems had prevented him from attending high school, and in the late 50s he became a patient of Bruno Bettelheim, who eventually dismissed his case as hopeless.
Bennett fought back. His music and poetry became a way for him to control his illness. "I was put in a situation," he said, "where I was diagnosed by this one psychiatrist who proved to be totally wrong. We're talking about something very, very subliminal here. Anyone who walked into that office was tagged as an insane person, was tagged as someone who would never succeed. I was a child when it all happened, but the sad aspect of it is that it took a half century to fight back. But I won. I am in a situation where I am comfortable with my life now....I no longer have anything to hide. I have something that was a curse in my life, but it was not my fault. Why should I be punished for it? I'm a talented artist and I can deliver."
After my article ran Bennett got a call from Harvey Moshman, the producer of Channel 11's Wild Chicago. Moshman taped a segment on Bennett at Foster Avenue Beach that aired in November 1994. Bennett gave a funny and charming performance, improvising several entertaining songs for the show's correspondent. According to Moshman, Bennett's segment was one of the most popular in the history of Wild Chicago.
"After he was on," says Moshman, "he was extremely pumped up. He would leave me messages that were two minutes of singing only. And I would send it to the people who worked with me on the show, and they would get a kick out of it."
Bennett's segment played in reruns a few months later, and a producer from WLUP FM asked Bennett to do Wendy Snyder and Bill Leff's morning radio show. "Months had gone by since he'd last been on the show," Moshman says. "He called me and says, 'We're gonna be on the radio. Can you meet me and my friend at WLUP?' I said sure. Whenever you go on a radio show, you sit there and wait. It's endless torture just waiting to go on. So to compound that, Bennett got there three hours early."
Moshman noticed that Bennett seemed paler and thinner than before. "He just looked bad. But the red light went on and the guy was fantastic. They would take callers and say, 'Give me a song about traffic.' And boom, he'd go into a song just that fast, and he'd do eight bars of something, and then he'd get another one about 'broken finger' and go and do another one in a different style. All the producers in the back, their jaws were dropping. They had no expectation that this guy was going to be as good as he was. Honestly, I had no idea either. I sensed he had something there, but it was just a question of mining it....On the radio Bennett was still trying to convince people that he's the next Andrew Lloyd Webber. They didn't want to listen to that. They just wanted to use him, for lack of a better term, as a freak. They didn't want to interview him. They just wanted to play a game with him. But I don't think he was offended by that or anything. He definitely shined in that light."
Bennett guested on two more radio shows, but eventually the invitations stopped coming. From time to time he'd call Moshman and say, "Let's work on a project." But there was only so much Moshman could do for him. "For me, it's always a question of how much do I get involved," says Moshman. "It's not my place to tell people when they're being taken advantage of. We have all kinds of people on the show. Some are completely in control of their destinies, and others, like Bennett, can be exploited easily. But he was convinced that he was on the road to stardom after his break on TV."
Moshman has friends at the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows, and sometimes he forwards them tapes of unusual material. He sent Bennett's segments to New York and told Bennett what he'd done. "I realized the moment I said it that I'd made a mistake. Because the next two times I saw him he kept saying, 'OK, I'm goin' from Chicago to Letterman. Here's the plan, OK. Network TV. I'm there.'" Moshman didn't have the heart to tell Bennett that the producers had rejected him as a guest. "This is about as gentle a soul as you can find," Moshman told them, but they weren't convinced.
In January 1996 Bennett appeared again on Wild Chicago. This time he improvised songs on the el based on passengers' suggestions. He introduced himself as the Man Who Would Not Stop Singing. While Bennett had seemed lovably eccentric in the first episode, he seemed much shakier in the second. His singing was still strong, but he looked weak and considerably older than before. The physical difference was startling.
Soon afterward, Moshman got a call from one of Bennett's friends. She said Bennett was "healing" and wouldn't be in touch for a while. She wouldn't say specifically what he was healing from. "That was a little heavy for me," Moshman says. "I started feeling guilty about exposing him to a lot of pressure. Being on camera, his health wasn't great, and so forth. I didn't want to keep pushing it. But he's such a creative individual. He's gotta have a reason to keep creating all these songs and poems and cartoons, putting them in the book for the day when someone will hang a star on his dressing room. I wouldn't ever want to rain on his parade or deflate the balloon at all, because he's just a source of an abundant amount of material. The guy is very talented, and there's no denying that."
I went to the Edgewater apartment Bennett shares with his roommate Alison on a Wednesday afternoon in November. The place was much as I remembered it--small, clean, and sparsely furnished, with several tambourines hanging on the walls. He sang a song called "Christmas on a Chessboard." It included the lines, "Bishop of the heart, bless the rooks / Pawns and kings, he is your God," and ended with a resounding "Checkmate...amen!"
"That's very nice," I said. "So what's been going on?"
He'd placed classified ads in the Reader and the Tribune: "Songwriter seeks creative artists to perform his songs and work on creative ideas." He said he'd received dozens of calls and was inviting people over to his apartment to "audition." He showed me a list of phone numbers and played some messages off his answering machine. The previous night he'd auditioned a guy named Brett Sparks Larsen, who had arrived from San Francisco three years ago.
Larsen operates a small recording studio out of his home and has played in several bands. His audition, he later told me, consisted mostly of listening to Bennett sing. "He started doing a song about me calling him on the phone and how he could make things happen for me. I've played with all sorts of musicians. I tend to have a weakness for the offbeat. But he can really sing, and he can play that tambourine like nothing else. I've never heard anybody play tambourine like that before. His enthusiasm is contagious. There was a woman there auditioning at the same time. He was so excited about her. She was in her late 50s and singing a standard like 'Satin Doll' or something. I was amazed at how encouraging he was. He wanted to make her a star. I think that'd be great. I'd love to see a 55-year-old guy who's got no insides in the music industry succeed. But I would have to weigh the probability of such a thing."
Larsen said he told Bennett that he'd like to work with him in the future. According to Bennett, Larsen wanted him to serve as CEO of a record company that they were starting together. He told me he'd be writing "signature songs" for recording artists that he selected, and he'd also be singing himself.
"Are you sure you're going to be able to handle this?" I asked. "After all, before--"
"I just got sick," Bennett said. "No one can anticipate when they're going to get sick. I developed a terrible stomach disorder that almost killed me. Oh, there were a lot of times that I was incoherent in certain respects, and it was just not a steady realm of knowing what I wanted. There was an interplay with madness and what's here on the concrete ground. And I finally dealt with it on an intellectual level and find myself now on the concrete ground of reality. There was the prospect of going on the David Letterman show that might have just pushed it over the edge because I may not have been ready for the big time yet. Now I'm ready. Now I am ready for anything. Anyone can call, and I am ready to go on. Being the CEO of a record company is an exhilaratingly exciting opportunity for me. I am that enthusiastic. Nothing's going to deter me from getting my dreams, and if I can help young people make it, that'll be just a feeling of self-gratification for me, for sure. And I can do it. I can write. I've got some really great songs." He sang:
We're together now.
It doesn't really matter, Neal.
We're all together now.
Just like it was on the el train.
Just like it was on the el train.
Just like it was on the el traiiiiiiiiiiiin.
"Heh heh heh heh heh," he laughed. "That was amazing, wasn't it?"
"Amazing," I said.
"No script. I just get up, and there it is."
A well-coiffed young man named Rod Young was sitting in a green plastic chair in Bennett's living room the next afternoon, a week before Thanksgiving. He'd responded to Bennett's ad without realizing he already knew Bennett.
"I cut his hair one day," Young says. "When I cut hair, I give people my card. I told him I was a singer. He said, 'Well, I'm a songwriter. Maybe we can get together.' At that time it wasn't feasible. Time passes on, I've done stuff, he's done stuff. I looked in the paper and I saw his name. I didn't recognize his name, but I recognized his voice when I called him. He's like, 'Rod Young, whaddaya been doin' all this time?' Here I am, three years later."
Also at this audition was Amy Brown, a young woman Bennett had met at a bus stop earlier this year. She'd told Bennett she was in the entertainment publicity business, and he stored her card away for future use. This was the first time she'd seen him since then.
Rod Young was holding a boom box, and Amy Brown sat on Bennett's bed only a few inches away. Bennett stood in the middle of the room beaming. Young sang a few bars of "Hello" by Lionel Richie.
I've been alone with you inside my
And in my dreams I've kissed your lips
A thousand times.
I sometimes see you pass outside my door
Hello? Is it me you're looking for?
Bennett applauded enthusiastically. "Oh, man! Terrific!" he said to Brown. "Rod's going to be my artist with my company. We're going to sign a contract today. Brett Sparks Larsen, my partner, was supposed to be here, but he couldn't make it because his car was broken. We want to go to a recording session as early as Monday. With professionals. Plus Rod."
Young was surprised. This was the first he'd heard about a recording session.
"Can you give me the contact person from the recording studio?" asked Brown.
"Pardon?" said Bennett.
"Can you give me his name and his number? I'd like to--"
"What would you say to him?" asked Bennett. " Because I don't want you to wreck anything."
"I'm not wrecking anything at all."
"No. To the record company I'm involved in. What are you going to say?"
Brown looked annoyed. "Well, I haven't thought about it exactly at this moment. Because--"
"What I need you to say is, 'You picked the right man for the job.' You know."
"You understand what I'm saying?"
"Because my whole life is going into this thing."
"But I've never heard of the recording studio."
"It's a new company."
"But what's the address? Where is it?"
"See, he answered an ad. He didn't know that he was responding to my ad in the paper. We just made that decision after he heard me sing one song. He said, 'You're gonna run my company.' But why don't we wait until we have more information, and then everybody will get numbers and everything else. All that's important to know right now is that we're gonna build a company and nothing's going to circumvent that. That's the way I feel about it."
"But I don't want to give the owner any insecurities. All right? So is everybody satisfied in terms of what they're doing now? Because I'm dead serious about this." He pointed at Brown. "You can do the promotion, and I'm gonna tell him that. But let me be the one to do it."
"Well, I have to be there too," she said.
"You'll be at the meeting. We're gonna set up a meeting. I mean, there's a lot of people involved here."
"I understand that."
"I want you, I chose you, I called you."
"Well, we can talk about this later. That's no problem."
"You're coming to the meeting, so you'll meet everybody then."
"We have to do it when I can do it. I mean, I've got--"
"Well, we'll call you and set up a time."
"When all of us can do it."
"Oh, yeah! I want everybody to go on their Thanksgiving vacation, because I need time to get the songs ready, to get the contracts ready, to get the agreements ready, to have concepts, to get this ready. It's exciting." Bennett turned to Young. "For the next year you're not going anywhere. You're going to be in a studio working to make hit records."
"That's fine with me," Young said.
"I'll be very honest with you."
"I'm gonna focus on this," said Young, "and not other stuff."
"Oh, definitely," Bennett said. "This is for real."
"That's right," said Young. "For real. You know what I mean? Because Bennett, I tell you, I meet a lot of people. I meet more people in one day than anyone."
"But you're pretty convinced that I'm for real."
"Everybody's got a story, and everybody's got a fake story."
"Mine is not fake."
"No, no. I'm not saying that. I'm just telling you how I make sure it's legal and everything like that."
"You know what I should do? I should call Brett and let him know that we're having a meeting." Bennett picked up the phone and dialed.
Young said to Amy Brown, "If I work on a project with this guy, this is my project for the year."
"Right," she said.
"Brett, this is Ben! OK, buddy. We're having a meeting right now. I've got some sensational talent. Sensational promotional people. We really need to hear your voice. OK, buddy? Now, I'd like to introduce you first to Amy, she wants to talk to you."
"Excuse me," said Brown. "You don't have my permission to do this."
"There's a guy named Rod Young, he's gonna be our artist for the next year. He's sensational, OK?"
Young handed Brown a demo tape he'd made. She tried to squirm out the door.
"Am I doing good for you, Brett?" Bennett said into the phone. "All right! Rod wants to go right into recording. Amy wants to come to a meeting, right?"
"I'll talk to you later," Brown said.
Bennett said good-bye and hung up the phone. "OK, there it is," he said to Brown. "Does that confirm at all anything? Are you going to be involved?"
"I have to go," she said.
"Are you going to be involved in it?"
"We haven't even discussed it in person with him."
"Well, that's the best I can do. He can't get here right now."
"You should tell him that I really think we should discuss it in person," she said. "OK? I'll call you."
Brown left, and Bennett sat down next to Rod Young."I think she's skeptical of our project," he said. "We don't need skeptical people. Now, you're going to sign an agreement. We have to do that. I need you to go to work. You heard what he said."
"I'm your artist and I have no problem with that," Young said.
"You're my artist for the next year."
"I just want you to understand something. I am an artist. If I had a dime or a nickel for every person I tried to work with that turned out to skank--"
"But you believe in my heart I'm for real."
"Oh, yeah! Ben, listen--"
"I just want professionalism."
"Bennett! We want professional. That's what I want. Professional. I don't want something half-assed. I worked with a lot of people who have made a lot of promises, and I've worked a long time. Because I put together the Rod Young Project."
"I'll do what it takes. Twenty-four, seven, and one day. What happens is that a lot of people claim to be true. I was just working with a producer that just flaked out. I would go to the studio to sing, 'I'm ready, I've got the voice.' He doesn't show. There are phones. There is no reason he should not be in contact with me."
"I agree 100 percent," Bennett said, winking. "That's not going to happen with me, fella! You knew when you came over today you would be in the right place."
"Yeah! I wouldn't be here if I didn't."
"You're as serious as I am. Rod, you're going to be a big superstar."
"Well, we hope so."
"That's where I come in," said Bennett.
"I'm tired of cutting hair."
"Well, I'll promise you one thing. I'll exclusively work with you."
The phone rang. Bennett answered. "Hello? Brett! How you doing, buddy? Rod Young wanted to talk to you. He's a sensational artist. Come on and say hello. OK?"
Young took the phone. "Hello, this is Rodney Young. How are you? Good to meet you finally ..."
Bennett and I sat on his bed. "I did it," Bennett said. "Aren't I amazing?"
"Unbelievable," I said.
Bennett shouted at Young, who was still on the phone. "Tell him you're gonna do my stuff for a year! Tell him you're doing my stuff--" Young motioned for Bennett to keep quiet. "Rod, tell him you're gonna do my stuff!"
Bennett got back on the phone. He and Larsen decided to meet with Young the following Sunday afternoon.
"I've only known Bennett 24 hours," Larsen said later, "but I'm used to things happening quickly. I'll test the water. I'm a believer."
Bennett hung up and started charging around his apartment. "Everybody calm down!" he shouted.
"I think we're calm," Young said.
"Well, look what we're accomplishing. It's great! OK, 2 PM Sunday. Let's go to work, guys." He shook Young's hand. "Wish you all the luck in the next year working with me. You have no doubts. We're goin' places! Can you believe it? In just 25 minutes I've established an international record company! Now don't forget. Let's make the biggest international recording company in the world!"
"That's fine with me," Young said.
Bennett winked."You got it, buddy."
People continued to stop by Bennett's apartment for auditions. He discovered two female singers who he thought would be fabulous recording artists. Other people who auditioned found themselves sucked into various schemes. One man listened as Bennett told him about a "24-hour Broadway musical" that he was working on. The man came back the next day and asked Bennett what he'd done about getting his musical produced. "Oh, I've got a thousand songs inside me," Bennett replied. The man said that wasn't enough and proceeded to list the many things Bennett needed to do to put on a Broadway show. "Really?" Bennett said. "I had no idea!"
On Sunday, November 23, I went over to Brett Sparks Larsen's place to sit in on the recording session. Bennett was there with Rod Young and Alison, Bennett's Jamaican roommate.
To supplement his disability checks Bennett works part-time for the property management company that runs his apartment building. He places classified ads in the Reader and interviews people in his living room to see if he can pair together strangers as apartment mates. If he succeeds in his matchmaking efforts he gets a free month's rent. Alison showed up at his door one day, and Bennett decided that she was an ideal match for him. She only uses the apartment to sleep and says she'll be moving as soon as possible. But she agreed to come to the recording session because Bennett had told her that it was a press party for the new international record company he was starting.
Larsen served us tea. Bennett sat on a couch next to Alison, Young in a chair next to them. Larsen sat at his desk, on top of which sat a computer and some home recording equipment. Off to one side stood some microphones.
"My prevalent thought is that we all have to protect what we have musically," said Bennett. "The point is that there has to be dynamic trust here. Because we're taking a great shot, so we should ask intelligent questions."
"Right, absolutely," Larsen said gently.
"Let me ask you an important question," Young said to Larsen. "What are your goals? To let you know where I'm coming from: I'm a recording artist. I'm trying to establish myself as that. Trying to perform a few shows and move on through life. I don't care about how big I can get. I'm ready to push until the sky's the limit. Shoot for the stars and go all the way through space. I don't know where exactly you're coming from--"
"Well, I'm pretty much right here," Larsen said. "In this particular capacity for you guys, I think of myself as a producer. Arranger. Also co-songwriter."
"Right," Bennett said. "So we'll be working closely."
"You know," said Larsen, "I think we've gotta take it one step at a time and see how we work together. Let's not talk about what the name of the record company is, how much money we're going to make. You've gotta take it one step at a time. I think Ben's thinking, 'Yeah, right now, we've got a record company. Boom! Make way for the world!'"
Young: "But we see the same star, and that's what you want."
Bennett: "Well, if you think about it vicariously, if this goes to where we want it to go, we do have a record company, and that's the bottom line. That's what I want to establish. Because my life and all my heart is going to this. And I want to see this go to a great artist like Rod, who I admire a lot. Of course, he wants to do my material, right, Rod? Heh, heh!"
Bennett stood up. "I actually put a couple more together last night. I could do another one right now. It's really meaningful. I feel it could be quite dramatic. OK, this would be for our Christmas concept. I think this thing called 'The Circus,' I put a lot of love into this one, and I think you're going to like it an awful lot." He took a deep breath and prepared to sing.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on," said Larsen. "Maybe we can all throw out ideas what we're looking for."
"Oh," Bennett said. "OK. There should be a contractual agreement for at least one year if we're gonna do this. You can't just put in a few months of something and expect a big ball of heaven. We need the duration of a year to feel each other out, know how we're going to work, find the chemistry. If somebody wants to expound on that, fine. I just want to get all my songs out there. Now, how do the royalties work? How do we get it on the air?"
Larsen told him to slow down: that was thinking too far ahead. Instead they listened to some of Larsen's tapes, then they listened to a tape of Young singing. Bennett shifted on the couch, fiddling with a stack of papers he'd brought. They were song lyrics.
"I just want to ask," he said to Larsen. "How do we get 'em on the air?"
"That's, uh, that's--"
"We gotta get our artists into clubs," Bennett said. "That's part of the process."
Young: "You've got to get a product on the radio stations."
Larsen: "In the first place, you have to have a CD. As far as getting it on the radio, well, you've gotta have an angle."
Young: "That's one reason why I think we should do a dance song. Dance music gets in clubs, and people start saying, 'Oh, who made that record? We loved that.' The record companies come in later."
Bennett: "Well, we're gonna be a diversified association here. I'm literally obsessed with getting a hit out there. And you're obsessed with getting a hit out there. I'm obsessed with perfecting everything, getting it all together. I can see the album already. Let me just, let me show you some songs you've never heard on the earth."
"Can't we just get the first song?" asked Young.
"Yeah," Larsen agreed. "Let's just--"
Bennett ignored them. "OK. This is 'The Circus.'"
"OK," said Young. "First. One thing. The first song, are we gonna do a ballad?"
"It's a ballad. It's up-tempo, but--"
"Because sometimes ballads, that's the depressed part of life."
"There's a lot of songs here," said Bennett.
"In some ways I think it's more of a challenge to do an up-tempo tune," Larsen said. "Because I tend to write slower tempo tunes."
"That's how I'm feeling," said Young.
"This is an up-tempo song," Bennett said.
"Hit it," Larsen said.
What Bennett sang was decidedly not up-tempo. It sounded like something he'd never sung before in his life. It was one of his poems, and he was making up the melody as he went along:
I wander around like a clown
Lost from a circus.
I couldn't live without the thought
that in this life I have
Someone who walks beside me,
Gentle hand to guide me.
He finished the song. Young told him it had too many lyrics.
"It did not!" Bennett said. "It had just enough!"
"You and I and we know that you didn't have too many lyrics. But the people on the street that want to dance, they don't want to listen to your whole song."
"So cut some of the lyrics down! I'm just giving you some ideas!"
Alison yawned. "Is there any place I can watch the football game around here?"
Larsen and Young spent the rest of the afternoon cutting up "The Circus." Young wrote the lyrics, Larsen the music. Bennett drifted further and further into silence as his song disappeared. Once in a while he'd chime in with a comment, but the other two mostly ignored him. The song developed a modified dance beat. Young sang the new lyrics:
Your love's got me wandering around.
My soul is lost in this town.
Your love's got me runnin' around.
My soul is lost in this town.
Bennett whispered in my ear. "This Rod guy is good. I found the right artist. We lost 'The Circus,' but who the hell cares? We've got a hit on our hands!"
Around four o'clock Larsen set up a microphone to record a demo with Young. Bennett, he said, could stand off to the side and supervise. Young went down to his car to get something. Alison sat on the couch, yawning. Bennett was excited.
"Boy, I really need to get back in touch with today's music," he said to Larsen. "Too bad I got really sick. It ruined a lot of stuff. But this is working out really well. I'm happy with the results. I mean, it's going to take a while to put it all together."
"This is just rough, you know," Larsen said.
"I know that. I'm a writer. I want to direct the video, of course, too. And the irony of it is that all my material will be illustrated."
Larsen smiled. "You're a writer, film director," he said. "Is there anything you don't do, Bennett? That's what I want to know."
"No, no, no, no. Don't you agree? I do it all, don't I?"
"And then some."
"Don't you agree?" he asked me.
"Sure," I said.
"Well, you know the story behind why I have to do it all. I'm not a normal person. Not of this world."
"No!" Larsen said. "Really?"
"If you knew my life story, you would have to agree that I am from another world. As you get to know me, you'll see."
"You're a brother from another planet."
"Well," Bennett said, "I don't like to talk about myself too much. But it's true. It's really really true. I really am from another planet."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bennett Solomon photo by Nathan Mandell.