Never Say Die | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Never Say Die

A bunch of new-wave all-stars refuse to leave the stage.


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By Dave Hoekstra

Sullen regulars stake out their favorite spots at the bar. Cigarette smoke rolls through the room. Affection is doled out in shots of Tequila Rose.

The HighTones, a seven-piece Chi-cago-blues and soul band, are gigging at the Peek Inn, a dive bar near Irving and California. It's only the band's third gig, but they estimate they have a collective 200 years of Chicago rock 'n' roll experience. In the early 1980s singer and harp player Jim Desmond played in front of 20,000 people at ChicagoFest. So did guitarist Lee D'budda, formerly with Chicago new-wave pioneers Bohemia. Drummer Roman Zabicki played with Phil 'n' the Blanks, opening for acts like Marshall Crenshaw and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

"We started out doing this 35, 40 years ago," says bassist Carlo Pedigo, most recently with Crash Willy. "Except now, many of us have had the experiences that lead us to find more meaning in what we're doing. It's not just playing these blues tunes, it's playing our experiences as musicians and reliving that. And restoring its importance to ourselves by doing it."

Of the two dozen people in the bar, only a few pay attention to the music, a well-tailored mix of jump-influenced originals, Jimmy Reed covers, and a hard-driving John Lee Hooker-boogie retake of Marvin Gaye's "Baby Don't You Do It." You can't help but hear the regulars talking over the music. One fellow addresses the Bulls on TV. Another laments his dead drinking comrades. "Katharine Hepburn," growls a third. "She said it. 'Old age is for sissies.'"

Zabicki's drums are set up in front of a dartboard. A pool table cuts into the band's stage space. Fortunately for the HighTones, bar owner Rich Peek has curtailed all games during the band's three sets. The HighTones are earning roughly $40 each.

This is what happens to young people who go into music.

Desmond has dropped in and out of the local music scene since 1969, when he left his native Berwyn to play blues on the south side. He moved into a condemned building in Woodlawn whose previous squatters included country-blues singer Elvin Bishop and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. With his long gray beard and flowing white hair, he looks like some kind of anarchist, and he carries his harmonicas to gigs in a crumpled white shopping bag.

In 1978 guitarist-vocalist Bill Pekoc played with Pedigo and tenor saxophonist-keyboardist Rawl Hardman in a country-blues outfit called Southpaw, so named because everyone in the band was left-handed. In 1988, Desmond and Pekoc played a folk revival set for 52 Friday nights in a row at Clark's near Lincoln and Diversey (now it's Delilah's). A few weeks ago they went to see Pekoc's 18-year-old son, Bill Jr., sing with his metal band, Proudest Angel, at a Mexican restaurant a few blocks north of there. "Actually, I had a good time," Pekoc says.

"We all went through this struggle period where we wanted to be gigging, working musicians," says Pedigo. "Disillusionment follows. Everyone in the band has gone through the thing where there's no longer any sense to the struggle. Now we do it because it's just something we want to squeeze out. Some people hear that and appreciate the way it reflects in what we do. I guess you could say it makes it more honest."

Now Pedigo builds custom bass guitars for Lakland Musical Instruments, and Zabicki is a union carpenter. Zabicki was the only one in Phil 'n' the Blanks with a wife and children. "Family was the important thing in life," he says. "Phil was good with business, and all the money went back in the band. We'd get $1,000 playing a college and we'd pay ourselves $25. After the Blanks broke up, I couldn't make the commitment anymore. Now my kids are older, and this band doesn't take as much time and money." (Phil Bimstein is older too, and serving his second term as mayor of Springdale, Utah.)

In the early 90s Hardman and baritone saxophonist Barbara Gillies played in the Afro-Latin pop band Hidden Colors. (Their five-year-old son Jon recently got his first guitar, a pint-size Fender Stratocaster.) The HighTones rehearse once a week in the unfinished basement of their house near Addison and Kedzie. The basement isn't pretty: stray pieces of gold shag and brown plush carpeting cover the cold concrete floor. You wouldn't know it from looking at the basement, but Hardman is a trade-show decorator at McCormick Place. Between 1971 and '77 he played with Otis Rush; now he and Gillies develop tightly focused horn lines like the ones he played back then. In the late 1950s, Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam played slinky urban guitar for the west side's Cobra Records, single-string solos that cleared space for horns and pianos. Those horns are the key to the HighTones' sound.

"We learned a set of 12 blues covers to have a common ground," Desmond says of the band's beginning early last summer. "Those were songs everybody knew, like Jimmy Reed. Then we started thinking about originals. Everybody can play in different styles. We can do soul, swing, some rock 'n' roll, New Orleans. We're just not a prototypical shuffle/medium tempo/slow bar/back to another shuffle thing."

The band's self-released CD, 7 x 7, features seven songs and sells for $8 at their gigs; the band swaggers through Willie Dixon's "Built for Comfort," and on Pekoc's "Bottle Blues" the honking and shouting horns reflect the jazzy touch of 50s swing saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. The CD was recorded on eight tracks with a 30-year-old mixer in Gillies and Hardman's basement. "The best thing about making the record down here was that we had total control," Pekoc says, sitting close to the water heater. By day he's a dispatcher for the city water department. "Nobody was telling us what they wanted it to sound like. And we could take as long as we wanted."

A real estate agent by day, Gillies also books the band. "Even with the background and pedigree of everyone in this band, it's really hard to get anyone to give us a gig," she admits. Pekoc adds, "Some people are scared away by the idea of a seven-piece band. They think the bar might not be big enough or we'll be hollerin' for too much money." (The courageous can catch them this Saturday at the Fantasy Lounge, 4400 N. Elston.)

D'budda has a deeper concern. As the owner of Video Beat near Clark and Wrightwood, he deals with music fans on a daily basis, selling them music videos and used cassettes, CDs, and vinyl. "Most people don't know about our background," he complains. "The business has changed, and I see it because I'm involved in retail. It used to be we sold a lot more rock 'n' roll stuff. Now it's more dance music and hip-hop in a big, big way. Unless it's something they can sample, they don't care much about the history of music, which is unfortunate."

"As far as critics are concerned, the independent Chicago music scene started with Naked Raygun and Big Black in 1980," adds Desmond. "Excuse me! There was already Bohemia, a band Naked Raygun used to go see. Steve Albini was not living in Chicago. He was still out wherever he came from."

The HighTones have had their defining moments. Phil 'n' the Blanks' 1980 single "PRL853" was one of the first rock videos by a Chicago band and was put in rotation on MTV. The Jim Desmond Band opened for John Cale at Gaspars (now Schubas), for U2 when it made its local debut in a WXRT budget show at Park West, and for the Plasmatics with Wendy O. Williams at Stages (now Metro).

"There was a booking war for the Plasmatics," Desmond recalls. "The best thing was that the two guys bidding for the show both came to me separately and said, 'Desmond, you're going to be the opening act. You're the only band that can stand up to their crowd.'" The Plasmatics were supporting their 1980 debut New Hope for the Wretched (Stiff America), and Williams's stage shtick included cutting a guitar in half with a chain saw. "The funniest thing about Wendy is that she was supposed to be this punk-rock porn star. But she reeked of patchouli like some old hippie."

Bohemia's manager Robin McBride booked the band as an opening act for Iron Maiden at the 1982 ChicagoFest. "They told us we were going to have trouble," D'budda recalls. "But we were real cocky. At the time everything was going good for us. I had the same little amp I have today, and they had Marshall stacks. Sure enough, we get out there and 20,000 people are chanting, 'Maiden! Maiden! Maiden!' They start throwing stuff at us. We found ourselves out of our element for the first time. We'd had great years at ChicagoFest before. One time we opened for the Ventures in front of 25,000 people and got an encore. We didn't think anything would go wrong, but we were younger and more innocent."

D'budda steps out for a guitar solo on Albert King's "Oh, Pretty Woman." His head is bowed, and his bawdy, bending tones speak from experience. The HighTones are crowded into the stage space like riders on a rush-hour el. Pedigo leans against the jukebox as he plucks his bass. Drummer Zabicki is in the pocket, building a spicy Memphis groove. Desmond wipes sweat from his forehead. The Peek Inn regulars are coming and going, but the HighTones don't mind. They've found a place where time stands still.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/Michael Weinstein/Zirbel.

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