If you went to an underground show in Chicago in the past ten years, you probably saw Ray Ellingsen. Any time a band played eccentric, noisy, outre rock in a basement, loft, apartment, or converted warehouse, more likely than not he'd be there: snapping photographs right up front, hovering over the merch table to check out cassettes and T-shirts, chatting with musicians between or even during their sets. He hummed with enthusiasm that seemed as tangible as the aura drawn around a comic-book superhero.
After Ellingsen died of prostate cancer this fall, his friends in the DIY community were among the first to memorialize him publicly. On December 6, 2014, scene documentarian John Yingling posted a eulogy to Gonzo Chicago, a blog he'd launched in 2007. Yingling had moved to Montana in 2012, and since then his posts had focused on his globe-trotting crowd-funded webseries The World Underground—but Ellingsen's death prompted him to revisit his years in Chicago. "I immediately dug through a lot of old Chicago footage and found a few photos of him," he says. "I just stared at those and let the memories flood over me." In his eulogy Yingling wrote, "Ray probably spent more time in weird DIY spaces than I did. He was at literally every single show, taking photos, talking to people. He was over double the age of most people that hung out, but that didn't bother him. . . . Rest in peace to one of the most unique characters Chicago will ever see."
Ellingsen was 61 when he died. He was a conspicuous presence in dark, scuzzy show spaces packed with people who could remember their quarter-life crises (assuming they were finished with them). He wore modest wire-frame glasses and tended to tuck his band T-shirts into his jeans; he was graying and mostly bald, with just a crown of hair circling his head. But while his relatively advanced age made him stand out, his genuine interest in the community made him not only accepted but also beloved.
Toward the end of his life, Ellingsen was working on a photo book that would include stories and testimonials from Chicago's underground. When he talked to people at shows, he would offer them slips of paper with the question "What does the D.I.Y. scene mean to you?" and room for a response. "It just felt like a good show if he was there," says Kevin Cribbin of Unmanned Ship and Oozing Wound. "Not because he was the ultimate authority on what was cool—he was just the ultimate positive guy."
Ellingsen suffered from sciatica and back problems, and for the last few years of his life he was unemployed, getting by with the help of government disability benefits. (Before that, he'd sold his art and photos at fairs and markets.) His unusual schedule made it possible for him to attend hundreds of shows—he preferred underground spaces such as Mr. City, the Mopery, and Mortville, but he occasionally went to legitimate venues, most often the Empty Bottle. His dedication to the community and its strange, subversive music inspired many people who knew him.
"I've always worked these day or night jobs, and it's sometimes tough to find the energy to do the creative stuff you want to do," says Gabe Holcombe of solo shoegaze project Vehicle Blues and microlabel Lillerne Tapes. "But if you're around people like Ray, then it's way easier to laugh at yourself a little bit if you feel like you're too tired to do the things you actually like doing at the end of the day."
Holcombe says he probably met Ellingsen at defunct Humboldt Park loft space Ball Hall. All sorts of underground venues have popped up and closed down in the past decade, but Ellingsen kept following the action wherever it went and cheering on new bands. In a scene where evanescence is the law of the land, he felt like a permanent fixture.
People in the DIY scene heard plenty from Ellingsen about music—he was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, for instance, and he wasn't shy about it—but few knew about his personal life, or even where he lived and what he did when he wasn't at shows. Ellingsen came and went as he pleased, and because he'd disappeared for months before, when he stopped showing up last year it took some time for his absence to register. "It got to the point where—like, eight, nine, ten months—everyone noticed that Ray's not at any shows," Cribbin says.
The few people on the scene who had Ellingsen's phone number couldn't reach him. On October 16, a friend of Ellingsen's from high school, Kurt Sheffer, posted about his death on Facebook, below an Ellingsen concert photo someone else had shared a few weeks earlier. Maybe because the thread had gone quiet by then, the news didn't spread quickly in the underground music community. Nathan Gregory (previously of local psych band Nude Sunrise) found out in early December, after he tried to message Ellingsen on Facebook, and started telling his friends, including Yingling. By the time Yingling posted his eulogy on December 6, it had been nearly two months since Ellingsen's death on October 12.
Coincidentally, the very same day, visual artist Sarah Marie Coogan set up a memorial Facebook page called Ray Ellingsen Tribute Band, which quickly became an outlet for the community. On December 12, Gregory reposted a photo from Ellingsen's niece, Kelsey Gullett, who'd stayed by his side every night in his palliative-care facility—it showed his hand in hers, shortly before he died. Ellingsen had no wife or children, and his younger sister, Karen Gullett—Kelsey's mother—is the only surviving member of his immediate family.
The task of moving Ellingsen's possessions out of his Park Ridge apartment had fallen to Karen Gullett, but she couldn't find an address book or any other collection of contacts—she managed to reach only a few of his friends after his death. "I struggled to find people to contact about my brother," she says.
- Ray Ellingsen
- Ellingsen loved the band Mayor Daley and photographed them as often as he could. Left to right, they are Emily Elhaj, Paul Erschen, and Kelly Carr.
After Kelsey discovered Gregory's repost of her photo and alerted her mother about the Ray Ellingsen Tribute Band page, that changed in a hurry. Karen Gullett had known nothing of her brother's social life and concertgoing habits, but suddenly dozens of people from the DIY scene, all strangers to her, began reaching out to her on Facebook to share condolences and stories. The response to Ellingsen's death, Karen says, "developed from something that was nothing into something that I'm totally overwhelmed by."
On Saturday, April 25, Coogan joined artists Carrie Vinarsky (formerly of Coughs and Cacaw) and Paul Erschen (drummer in Mayor Daley) in presenting a memorial show for Ellingsen at the Logan Square DIY space that she helps run, with sets from Vehicle Blues, Wishgift, and Bitchin Bajas, among others. On Monday, May 18, the Empty Bottle hosts a second tribute show whose bill includes the Hecks, Toupee, Unmanned Ship, and Mayor Daley, who are playing for the first time as a duo (bassist Emily Elhaj, now in Angel Olsen's touring band, has left the group).
Ellingsen's friends in the underground music community would like to finish the book he started about the scene, adding their own thoughts about him, and many are keen to help Karen Gullett sort through the collection of his stuff in her care. (Coogan has already made one trip to the suburbs to pick up material for the April memorial.) The photos, letters, magazines, T-shirts, cassettes, ticket stubs, and other paraphernalia Ellingsen left behind are clues not only to decades of musical history but also to the life of the man who cared enough to keep it all.
- John Yingling
- Ellingsen on the steps at Mortville, a DIY space in Little Village that's since shut down
Born April 4, 1953, Ellingsen grew up in Park Ridge. He picked up the trombone in junior high and earned a bachelor of arts degree from Western Illinois University in the early 70s. Photography was part of his life since day one: His father, Raymond C. Ellingsen Sr., founded R.C. Ellingsen Photography, and he served as official photographer for the annual Chicago Auto Show from 1962, if not earlier, through 1985 (some of his photos are on its website). "We all worked the Chicago shows, including myself," says Karen Gullett. "My father would need dozens and dozens of people to accomplish what he did."
The younger Ray—"Big Ray," as he was called as a kid—held on to the majority of his father's negatives and photographs, and Karen says some date back to the 1920s. She's found one of Ronald Reagan and another of the Beatles pretending to play their instruments on the shore of Lake Michigan. "I have so many negatives I almost have to hire somebody to go through them all," she says.
Ellingsen began working in his father's studio while in college, supplementing his income by selling his own photos of the Grateful Dead—he'd become a Deadhead during his first year at Western Illinois, and his shots of the band date back to at least 1974. At the memorial show in April, Erschen read a short manifesto Ellingsen had written about photography: "When I come upon something of interest, I respond by studying all the viewpoints to capture my vision—creating something more than the objects before me. I photograph the discovery, but when the right visual moment arises, it seems the image takes control of me."
- Ray Ellingsen
- This photo of Chicago group Cool Memories shows off Ellingsen's experimental side.
Ellingsen took his earliest known shots of the Dead at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, as they performed in front of their famous Wall of Sound. According to the first book of the three-volume Deadheads Taping Compendium series, the Wall of Sound debuted in full in March 1974, producing "beautiful, clear music played quietly, but broadcast at a very loud volume." The color photos of Ellingsen's in the Compendium capture the size of the 75-ton sound system, its rows and clusters of speakers dwarfing the band members.
Compendium coeditor John R. Dwork wrote to Ellingsen in October 1997 requesting permission to use his images, and Karen Gullett found the letter among her brother's collection of Grateful Dead T-shirts, tickets, backstage passes, and clippings of his photos from magazines such as Relix and Dwork's Dupree's Diamond News. "Your photo would be a wonderful addition," Dwork wrote.
"We knew he was going to the Dead concerts," Karen says, "but I never really knew the capacity until he passed." She admits that her relationship with her brother "wasn't always the best," in part because he spent so much time following the Dead around the country. In January, when the band's four surviving members announced that they'd reunite for three final shows at Soldier Field in early July, Karen saw it as a sign. "He has a hand in this somehow," she says. "How bizarre is it that this year, their 50th year, they're gonna be here? I just looked at [the poster] and it had Ray's number all over." Karen hopes to attend one of the shows in memory of her brother—she's even picked out one of his Dead shirts to wear. (I've been poking around to try to get her tickets.)
As much as Karen Gullett has learned about Ellingsen from digging through the collections he amassed in his life as a Deadhead, she's been just as struck by what she's discovered about his relationship with the DIY scene. "These people loved my brother," she says. "He was good to them."
Bob Johnson, who's worked as a floor manager at the Empty Bottle for close to 13 years, says he's known Ellingsen for about ten. "He'd talk to the bands all the time. He'd always be at the merch table—just looking at every single merch that band had, always asking them questions about it," Johnson says. "The more often bands would see him around, they'd open up a lot more. He was so persistent and genuine that kind of weird vibe was shed away."
Albert Schatz, who plays in Wume with April Camlin, moved to Baltimore in 2013 (he works tour sound for Dan Deacon), but when he lived here he was in Bird Names, one of Ellingsen's favorite bands. "When I was younger, the amount of people who went to shows—the social aspect was huge," Schatz says. But Ellingsen was different. "He was definitely 100 percent there for music; socializing was just secondary to that." And Ellingsen's support could take some of the sting out of a particularly discouraging set. To show their appreciation, Bird Names overdubbed a recording of Ellingsen talking about tapes onto one of their albums.
Gabe Holcombe of Vehicle Blues points out that Ellingsen didn't support bands indiscriminately. "He would be very supportive of what I was doing musically, but he was also constructive," Holcombe says. "I would give him tapes of my music, and he would say that the stuff I record doesn't always translate live. I would agree, and it helped me look at what I was doing in a different way."
Ellingsen made mixtapes of deep cuts by the Dead for friends and strangers, bought band merch at an alarming rate, and gave musicians the photos he'd taken of them. "He would say, 'You can use these, just photo credit Ray Ellingsen,' and I was always really happy to do that," says Jake Acosta of Famous Laughs and the labels Teen River and Lake Paradise. "I think after a while he really started understanding his place and was stoked about it."
Coogan was often especially glad to see Ellingsen. "You could go out to any show, and you would know you would have someone to hang out with 'cause you'd know Ray would be there," she says. Coogan met him at a 2008 benefit for defunct underground newspaper The Skeleton, where he bought a collage from her. "We priced it at $1 million—some surrealist joke about art—and he bought it for $100. So he got a really good deal," she jokes. Any time Coogan ran into Ellingsen after that, he'd tell her about a new aspect of the work that had revealed itself to him.
Ellingsen loved the underground space Coogan helps run, and he was protective of it. When Coogan and her friends started booking shows, they'd sometimes post flyers listing the venue's address, which can attract unwanted attention; she says Ellingsen would tear down those flyers when he saw them at local record stores. "Looking back, I feel like I was close to Ray, but he really didn't let anybody that close—he compartmentalized things," Coogan says.
In 2012, Ellingsen entered 28 photos he'd taken at DIY shows into an Open Portfolio Walk organized by Filter Photo, I Am Logan Square, and the Logan Square Chamber of the Arts. Coogan recently found a photocopied printout of I Am Logan Square's online event page, to which Ellingsen had added a handwritten note explaining his participation: "The idea is to start getting my work out there + I will have a website soon also." After the three judges had their say and the public's votes were counted, he was one of five winners, and the Hairpin Arts Center displayed his pictures.
That same year Ellingsen launched his photo website and began working on his book. He gathered about 60 responses to the question "What does the D.I.Y. scene mean to you?" and handwrote drafts of an introduction—Coogan and company found several versions, all expressing his deep affection for the community. "Trying to capture this in small crowded dark places like basements or lofts to express a feeling of being there became a passion," he wrote.
David Gregory says the last time he saw Ellingsen was November 20, 2013, the second day of the annual festival Gregory ran for his old site Nitetrotter—it was named "Grateful Ray Day" in honor of Ellingsen because one of the groups on the bill, the Happy Jawbone Family Band, included David Lineal of Bird Names.
No one knew Ellingsen had been diagnosed with cancer, and when they stopped seeing him around, many people assumed he was just having trouble with his sciatica. I'd long been noticing Ellingsen at shows, and last year I finally talked to him at Logan Hardware. Co-owner John Ciba introduced us, and I could tell something was amiss, though I had no idea what—I remembered him practically bouncing around venues, but on that day he seemed drained of energy. As I worked on this story, I remembered Ciba telling me about a book, The Beatles From Cavern to Star-Club, that Ellingsen had asked him to sell at the shop; I bought it, partly out of curiosity and partly to feel a little more connected to him. Ciba gave the proceeds to Secret History of Chicago Music artist Steve Krakow to design a tribute to Ellingsen that will hang in Logan Hardware.
- Parker Bright
- Images from the April tribute to Ellingsen, clockwise from upper right: A picture of Ellingsen as a young man; Carrie Vinarsky's Grateful Ray Altar; a memorial candle ceremony; an exhibit of Ellingsen's band T-shirts and photos
At the April memorial show, Carrie Vinarsky brought an elaborate "Grateful Ray Altar" that she'd decked out with two gigantic skeletons and flowers surrounding a black-and-white photo of a young Ellingsen and a color painting of him. The altar rested in one of the performance areas, and it will make an appearance at the Empty Bottle event on May 18; well-wishers can bring mementos to rest on it for the night.
At the April show, pictures of Ellingsen from throughout his life hung in the living room, alongside his own photos and a couple of his paintings; a small portion of his band T-shirt collection lined a hallway. Near the stairwell to the basement, a laptop and projector cycled through a slide show drawn from roughly 4,000 of Ellingsen's photos that Coogan picked up at Karen Gullett's place; among the concert shots, I spotted an image of underground B-movie director David "Rock" Nelson. (Ellingsen is in a few of his films.) On a table near some snacks sat a handful of free tribute buttons Vinarsky had made and photocopies of one of Ellingsen's unfinished introductions to his book on the DIY community. On the other side of each was a copy of one of the slips of paper he'd handed out to ask people to share their feelings about the scene. Coogan added a request for thoughts about Ellingsen, which she's still accepting at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was the first time Karen Gullett and her family—her husband, Mitch, and two of their children, Kelsey and Mitch—had met many of the people who'd started pouring out their feelings on the Ray Ellingsen Tribute Band page in December. During an open mike, Kelsey asked everyone to say one word to describe her uncle. Out of the dozens of folks gathered, including Empty Bottle talent buyer Christen Thomas, drummer Theo Katsaounis, and former Cave keyboardist Dave "Rotten Milk" Pecoraro (in town from New Orleans), almost everyone spoke—and nobody could keep to just one word. They'd begun the open mike standing in a circle holding unlit candles; Karen lit hers and passed the flame along, with each guest lighting the next person's. Then they reversed the order, blowing the candles out one by one, all in silence. "Thank you," Karen said after extinguishing hers. "Thank you for loving my brother." v