Rapper Rich Jones gives a verse to the Chicago Mothman | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Rapper Rich Jones gives a verse to the Chicago Mothman

The cryptid of the summer speaks for itself on Jones’s Halloween-season single.

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Some reports of the Chicago Mothman make it sound more like a huge bat or owl, but everyone is pretty sure about the wings. - ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF DREW
  • Illustration by Jeff Drew
  • Some reports of the Chicago Mothman make it sound more like a huge bat or owl, but everyone is pretty sure about the wings.

Chicago has a rich paranormal history. If the tales are true, our city has ghosts in its nightclubs (the Limelight, Excalibur, and Castle Chicago, all in the old Chicago Historical Society building on Dearborn), in its hotels (the Congress Plaza Hotel reputedly throngs with spirits, including those of Al Capone and a murdered peg-legged hobo), and obviously in its graveyards (most famously, Resurrection Cemetery in southwest-suburban Justice is ground zero for sightings of a phantom hitchhiking woman nicknamed Resurrection Mary, who's been appearing since the 1930s).

Even against this busy backdrop, the apparent arrival of a flying cryptid that dive-bombs off the Willis Tower provides a new level of excitement—especially when it has its own theme song. Chicago rapper and singer Rich Jones performed "Mothman," his new track about the winged humanoid that's supposedly been plaguing Chicago for much of the summer and fall, in early September at the North Coast Music Festival—or so I heard from an alleged eyewitness, Reader staff writer Leor Galil. His account of the song, like most eyewitness reports of cryptids, provided limited evidence for what he claimed to have experienced—he sent me a photograph of Jones performing in front of a red-eyed illustration that could've been the creature, but there was no audio and no video. The track hadn't been released. In short, I had only Leor's word about its existence.

What about the 16,000 or so other people who attended North Coast that day? Surely many of them had passed within earshot of Jones's set. Why was there no shaky bootleg video, recorded with an iPad held aloft? Was Leor part of a localized mass hallucination? And in that case, why were there no other reports from people convinced they'd witnessed the same thing? Photographs can be faked. I had to find out more. I had to get proof.

Rich Jones learned about the creature this summer from a friend who records a wrestling podcast. - ALEXUS MCLANE
  • Alexus McLane
  • Rich Jones learned about the creature this summer from a friend who records a wrestling podcast.

Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself here. I've been interested in the Chicago Mothman, which I've been calling the Lake Michigan Bat Creature, since June 30, 2017—that's when it was supposedly sighted in my neighborhood, outside Logan Square bar the Owl. In late July, a friend sent me a recap of sightings published by Riot Fest's magazine, and I was thrilled by how close together many of them were. Most supposed witnesses describe the monster as a giant humanoid bat, but some report seeing a huge owl, a creature with "jagged and insect-like" wings and the "body form of a mantis," or a cryptid resembling West Virginia's famous Mothman from 1966. Similar sightings in Chicagoland date back to 2011, but they've undergone a remarkable uptick this year.

Many of these sightings have been catalogued by Lon Strickler of the website Phantoms and Monsters, who lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania. According to a map he's created, we're now up to 58 sightings—55 of them in 2017. Most have occurred relatively close to the lakefront, though suburbs such as Tinley Park and Bolingbrook have seen one-off outliers. The majority of witnesses agree that the creature has red eyes, that it's seven to eight feet tall, and that they experienced a strong feeling of fear or foreboding when they encountered it. The Reader's own Aimee Levitt covered the flying humanoid in August, and the Tribune and Playboy have published investigations as well.

Reputed sightings of the Chicago Mothman, collected and mapped by the website Phantoms and Monsters

As far as I know, Rich Jones is the first to address the sightings with music—but even if "Mothman" isn't the first song about the monster, I'm willing to bet it's the first with a verse from the monster's point of view. Unlike the Bat Creature, Jones has a publicist, so tracking him down for a telephone interview wasn't difficult. Since this summer, when he finished "Mothman"—an upbeat, charming pop tune with production by Fess Grandiose and Nunca Duerma—Jones has been waiting for the perfect time to release it. Halloween season was a gimme, and as soon as this story is published, the song will be out too.

Jones has had a busy year. In January the Chicago native released the EP Vegas, and in June he dropped a collaboration with Mykele Deville called "No Clue." He's performed steadily, most notably at the Logan Square Arts Festival and North Coast, and he's been feverishly working on new music at Fat Tongue, a Logan Square studio owned by his friend Joel Gutman. Of course, he's also made time to study the Lake Michigan Bat Creature.

"I started hearing about the creature in the middle of the summer," Jones says. "A friend of mine had posted something on Facebook about it. Given my own personal proclivities towards urban legends and the mysterious side, I of course took an interest." He went down a "Mothman K-hole," he says, laughing, and in the introduction of "Mothman" he shows off some of the fruits of that research. Most folks don't know, for instance, that the unidentified flying humanoid is theorized to have an eight-day feeding cycle.

Jones was introduced to the creature cult by his friend Ross Berman, a folksinger, comedian, and professional wrestling journalist. Berman has been looking for the creature since the summer. On Monday nights in Lincoln Park—a neighborhood rich in sightings—he records a podcast called The RAW Rebellion for WrestleZone.com, and afterward he often takes long walks home, sometimes all the way to the Loop, gazing skyward and hoping to spot something. He hasn't had any luck yet, but he speaks fondly of the creature: "It's still the kind of thing that inspires wonder."

For Jones, it's inspired not just wonder but also a smooth creature-feature jam. "Mothman" started as a way for him to exorcise writer's block. "I'd been sitting on this one piece of music my friends had made for me from last fall," he says. "I just knew I was gonna have to do something great with it. I was feeling a little stymied. At a certain point, something just clicked in my head and I thought, 'I should write about the Mothman.' I just thought, 'This could be a fun little exercise.' I hadn't written any sort of story form or any sort of narrative in a long time, so I figured it would be kind of fun to tap into my other interests while approaching music."

The song unfolds mostly like a traditional horror story: he recounts a legend, then sets a group of hapless victims off in search of the monster it describes. When they end up face to face with it, though, Jones deviates from the template: his protagonists are met by a creature less interested in chowing down on human beings than with finding a way to fit into our world. (It's a little like Sheb Wooley's 1958 novelty hit "The Purple People Eater," except this monster doesn't mention wanting to join a rock 'n' roll band.) Given that Jones describes the Mothman has having "red-ass eyes," the song turns out surprisingly poignant, which works largely due to Jones's earnest, relaxed vocal performance. It's a perfect summer-slipping-into-fall song, a bit of campy soft soul with a note of melancholy.

On October 3, midwestern-focused paranormal research site SingularFortean.com posted the account of an anonymous local witch, who proposed that a ritual she'd conducted with her partner at Fargo Beach in Rogers Park during the so-called blood moon of September 2015 might have opened a door for these creatures. (Depending on who you believe, the plural "creatures" is entirely apt. In May near Navy Pier, witnesses reported a pair flying together.) Originally the witch had designed the ceremony to honor the lake and the moon, but due to a premonition that "the veil between worlds was becoming permeable," she changed the spell to create a portal. She remembers "dark, shadowy things seemingly pouring out of the doorway" while conducting her incantation, but she feels warmly toward the shadows. She advises trying to establish a relationship with the creatures, believing they're here to help—though this conviction puts her in a tiny minority.

Jones joins her in that belief—or at least that's how he feels about the monster in his song. "I wanted to put a quasi-positive spin on it," he says, "and make it sound like he's not the worst thing in the world—if he even is a 'he'! I wanted to make the moth creature slightly sympathetic."

Even before the Mothman speaks on its own behalf, Jones notes that it's a lonely thing, without a support network: "Never known to have affiliated with the Masons, has no patron, has no matron." The second verse is all creature, with Jones singing through a Helicon voice modulator to create its deep, fuzzed-out speech. "I originally was approaching this record as more of a straightforward general 'emotion' record, not really being specific to anything. That verse is actually remnants of what was supposed to be a more serious vocal attempt," Jones explains. "I was actually pretty geeked that I was able to find a way to reframe something that had been a loose string of words into something with a bit more potency and make something more interesting."

Chicago’s flying humanoid has been sighted near tourist-friendly downtown landmarks as well as in far-flung suburbs. - ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF DREW
  • Illustrations by Jeff Drew
  • Chicago’s flying humanoid has been sighted near tourist-friendly downtown landmarks as well as in far-flung suburbs.

Jones isn't simply trying to get us to sympathize with the Chicago Mothman, though. It's more complicated than that—he suggests that the creature can portend evil without itself being evil. He may reference Superman on the hook ("Look there, up in the sky"), but it's not a bird or a plane overhead but rather a "being whose existence may spell our doom." Jones thinks the sightings may be connected to the famed West Virginia Mothman, which author John Keel linked to the collapse of the Silver Bridge in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies, thus solidifying the notion of the creature as bad omen. When I ask Jones if he's concerned that our homegrown humanoid might also be a grim portent, he's cautious.

"I don't want to speak any evil shit into existence, so I will decline to answer that," he says.

Berman isn't so hesitant. "I always felt the 'Mothman' theory was people trying to layer previous encounters that people had across the country with whatever the hell people are seeing in Chicago. I'm not ready to actually call it a Mothman," he says. He suspects that the "bad omen" aspect of the story might be our own psychological projection. "It appeared at the time when we were looking for something to be a harbinger of doom, because Donald Trump was tweeting about North Korea—we had all kinds of hell going on here in the States. So people went, 'Clearly this Mothman is a warning! This is a sign!' I think that stigmatizes it a little."

But Berman's speculation stops short of any attempt to explain what the monster might actually be doing. "It doesn't feel like this creature is trying to warn us of anything, or if it is, it just can't communicate with us," he says. "The only thing that will help is actually figuring out what this creature is and what it wants." When I ask Berman if he has any insight into the creature's thought process, he demurs: "I don't know if it really has any motivation other than survival." He's trying to avoid making assumptions, instead treating the creature like any other unknown animal.

When I spoke to Jones, he was on his way to New York City, but when he returns, he plans to meet up with Berman and join him in his creature hunt. Even if that just means wandering along the lakefront, he's excited—the dark pall from earlier in our talk seems to have passed. "Part of what makes these things fun is that they're an escape from our reality, things of more measured consequence," he says, laughing. "It's just such a strange time—I just think having these kinds of minor escapes is a really healthy thing. Otherwise, we'll just go crazy, and then what's the joy in life?"  v

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