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Chi Lives: prodigal proprietor

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It's after midnight at the Underground Wonder Bar on East Walton. Lonie Walker, the co-owner, is at the piano, crooning in her husky voice songs like "Rainy Night in Georgia" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." She's wearing a dress--black, short, and stylish--which, she cracks, she does twice a year "whether I want to or not." Between songs she puts on a pair of hippie sunglasses and holds up her first CD, All That I've Got (I Gave to Music). It's a collection of jazzy, funkified covers ranging from "Me and Bobbie McGee" to "Fever" to Don McLean's "Vincent," recorded live at her bar with the Big Bad Ass Company Band. In the cover photo she's wearing the hippie glasses and a hat.

"I want you all to know it's really me on the cover," she announces to her tiny club's patrons. "I didn't wear my hat today because it's a good hair day." She laughs and shakes her grayish-brown curls. On the back of the CD Walker is shown in a photo from more than 20 years ago. She's wearing bell-bottoms and a tank top, smiling and leaning confidently against an antique Bentley. Looking at her now and then, you'd have no clue that just a few years after this photo was made she'd be strung out and hitting bottom on the streets of Los Angeles.

When she was 14, Walker ran away from her home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to follow rock festivals and play guitar on the streets.

"My cousins and I worked on my relatives' farms together, milking cows, driving tractors, like major farm stuff. One weekend I stayed in town and did drugs and hallucinogens and I never went back to the farm. It was the 60s and the 70s and everybody was moving. It was part of like seizing the moment and knowing that you were living in a time that was never to be repeated.

"When laser shows were first happening they came up to do a rock concert in Green Bay and one of the [laser show] guys and I hit it off. He was like, 'Come to Chicago,' and I'm like, 'OK.'" Her sophomore year had ended and she had just quit school. She was 16.

"This girl who was rooming with one of the laser show guys needed to keep her apartment so her mother didn't know she was living with him. I got her apartment for free and I just panhandled every day. I never declared myself helpless and homeless. 'Got any spare change,' that's what I did. I just asked them when I was hungry. And I can't tell a lie, I stole food from grocery stores. I wanted a Coca-Cola and a big bag of cheese popcorn and wine every day."

Walker was playing piano in local bars by age 19. At 23 she took her act to San Francisco and soon she was sinking in LA.

"I went to some party and wound up in the ghetto for five and a half weeks. I was not in control of myself. People took me in. They realize you're some fallen star. It's just a really interesting way to go down. I mean, I was in Watts and all kinds of places. Another thing that happened was that a guy fell in love with me and just wouldn't let me go. It was an on-the-street kidnapping. So I mean, it was time to go."

Four months after going to California she returned to Chicago. "I realized the drugs were controlling me, and in order to be whole and successful I had to be in control of myself," Walker says. She quit the drugs and since then has married, had three children, divorced, embarked on a new relationship, had another child, and opened her bar, which she runs with her mate John "Yanni" Collins.

"I feel like a success," she says--but she doesn't want her children to follow her example. Two of her sons are in private school and another is at the Benjamin Franklin arts magnet. "I really work hard to keep them in an academic environment that will challenge them. I think you need the degrees to succeed in today's world. I'm much more for the system than against it. I realize I'm like one in a million who can beat it."

Would she warn kids against running away from home? "I cannot make that call," Walker says. "There are so many abusive situations, [sometimes] it's still preferable to leave. But kids should keep off the streets and learn to take care of themselves. If you have the ability to work, you can keep yourself off the streets. Working hard is never as hard as living on the streets."

Tonight (February 28), Walker and her band will be performing (and recording) at a record release party to benefit Teen Living Programs, a shelter that provides counseling and referrals to runaways and homeless and abused kids. Because the Underground Wonder Bar is too small for the crowd she hopes to draw, the party will be held at the Cactus Bar & Grill, 404 S. Wells, from 8 until midnight. Tickets are $10. For more info call Suzy Petri at 773-989-4611. --Cheryl Ross

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lonie Walker photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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