Chicago has an ample, august history of activism and smoke-stoked malarkey. One such vivid centerpiece of early Gold Coast “hobohemia” began in 1914, spurred by Wobblies, a Chicago Renaissance socio-cultural efflorescence known as “The Dil Pickle Club” (single “L,” please). A welter of social collision swam beneath the establishment’s signboard, “Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside”; political ne’er-do-wells, the jobless, hard cases of easy virtue, writers like Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Djuna Barnes, Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Rexroth.
A post-millennial edition inaugurates late afternoon at the Zebra Lounge, tucked away in an apartment building near State and Division, rather than “Thru the Hole in the Wall Down Tooker Alley, to the Green Lite Over the Orange Door.” Curated by editors from Lumpen and Stop Smiling, the Dil’s tradition of “short speaking” along with piano cabaret and one notable burst of performance art, followed Newberry Library’s Bughouse Square Debates. Cluster-smoking on the curb out front is also a feature, bright sun shielded by tall, nurtured trees. “There’s some young people around,” an elderly man, sockless in Teva sandals, observes as I walk up. “Non-conformists.” The room’s dim after the day, red and humid, a modest impersonation of Stygian gloom. A Fiesta-style bowl sits near the door, dusted with tiny green pickle pins. (On close inspection, they’re impressed with a tinier Heinz logo.) A man finishes a song at the piano against the mirrored zebra backdrop. I recognize someone from Chicago’s post-punk bunch. You part of this? “I don’t know if I’m ready, I don’t want to jump on a bandwagon that ended in 1934.”
A full-on graybeard with a long gray ponytail shoots video off a tripod. Promiscuous red lights twinkle in anticpation of washes of flash. Chronicles! Chronicles! A man with a camera steps in the line of sight of a woman with tattoos and a strappy tank top. “You’re in my fucking way,” she says as a statement of cold fact. Two men recite, of Matthew Nicholas and Eric Warner, prowling the modest boîte. Their repetitions and nonsensical assertions, verbiage with the whiff of first exposure to opiates, sing of the maddening false loftiness of that long-gone era’s quack verbiage. In other words, stellar pastiche that bugs the shit out of the assembled.
“There… understand the future,” the piece ends. The bartender brushes against the zebra wind chime over the bar. “That girl, that much heckling?” one of the players says, belly to bar. “I walked right up to her, I played directly to her, fuck you, chick!” But the modern conversation pit is out in stark staring daylight: the smokers on the curb outnumber those in the Dil, a gentle intake and murmur while nearby, a Gold Coaster, middle-aged before his time, barks into his dated, fist-sized Blackberry. (Ray Pride)