Giving Age the Ax

by John Dugan

If you want an inkling of what the scene in Wicker Park was like ten years ago, this speaks to that. I covered a project by artist/activist Jenny Sheppard. She now resides in the Baltimore area. The Saverio Truglia photos were amazing.

August 22, 2002

Plug in, turn up, feel better.

Seated in a padded metal chair, the woman on the videotape strums downward on a white electric guitar, slowly, on every beat, eliciting a sound that echoes around the room. Another seated woman joins in tentatively with her guitar, playing a similarly odd chord. Both concentrate on a fragile, rudimentary rhythm, which only seconds later collapses. Then, with some encouraging words from a youthful voice off-camera, they begin again. Ching. Ching. Ching.

The electric guitar, says artist Jenny Graf Sheppard, is by and large "a male-, youth-, pop-dominated object." But her current endeavor, "The Guitars Project," puts the six-strings in very different hands. Twice a week from January to mid-May of this year, Sheppard led a group of women in their 70s and 80s in improvisation. The core members of her ensemble--Lodelin, Minna, Eleanor, Marion, Alice, and Carolyn--are all regular visitors to the Council for Jewish Elderly's Adult Day Services Center in Evanston. Typical events at the center include field trips, dancing, or strolls around a secure area. But for those five months, "Jenny--Guitars" was a highlighted event on the dry-erase board.

Physically, the half dozen seated players holding an assortment of guitars vaguely resemble something Glenn Branca might have thought up, but Sheppard's project has another, less visible layer--at least a few ensemble regulars have Alzheimer's. "I was interested," explains Sheppard, "in inserting older people with memory problems into a situation where that person has agency."

The Guitars Project weaves together Sheppard's long-term interests in art that explores the creative aptitudes of the elderly and in improvised experimental music. Her father was an eminent gerontologist who worked with labor unions and employers on age issues and researched the societal effects of aging. "I had one of those dads," says Sheppard, "who would bring me along and say, 'What do you think?'" Over the years, Sheppard did her own homework on the subject, and found one book, Heidi Ehrenberger Hamilton's Conversations With an Alzheimer's Patient: An Interactional Sociolinguistic Study, particularly illuminating. Conversations is unusual, says Sheppard, in that it explains the logic and structure behind how people with Alzheimer's express themselves.

At Hampshire College, where Sheppard studied film, video, and installation art, her thesis was a piece that incorporated audio and video footage of three elderly women in a nursing home. For another project she worked with Hilda Gorenstein--aka "Hilgos"--a painter and 1923 School of the Art Institute graduate then in her 90s and in a nursing home suffering from extreme memory loss. Sheppard visited and worked with the painter, ultimately mounting Hilgos-related shows featuring her own work together with Gorenstein's drawings and paintings at nursing homes and senior centers in Chicago, at SAIC, and at a New York gallery.

Since getting her MA from SAIC in 1998, she's taught there and at UIC, and played guitar with two of the more out-there underground bands in Chicago: the enshrouded Bride of No No and the improvisational, dark-wave Metalux. In the last couple years she's shown only one art piece, a motion-detecting sound-and-black-light installation called "reflex lux." "I wanted to do a project like this," she says. "But being in two bands and working, I hadn't made the time until this last semester."

Sheppard's avant-leaning musical endeavors directly inform the project. "It is really related," she says. "With Metalux, there was a similar idea in picking up the guitar and thinking, 'How am I going to interact with this object?' In Metalux, there's tension between us and our instruments. We use them, but we're alienated from them." With the CJE ensemble, Sheppard says, "we had to accept all the range of emotions they had with the instrument." This, she admits, is another way of saying, "We don't focus on the fact that you are just dusting around the strings" but concentrate rather on group participation.

Over the five months of the project, Sheppard recorded portions of the rehearsals on a portable four-track or videotaped them. Her intention all along has been to remix the material as an audio piece--she's currently working in residence at the Experimental Sound Studio to produce something from the raw rehearsal recordings--and a more finished video installation will also likely emerge from the material.

In July Sheppard showed four studio-quality color portraits of the women taken by Saverio Truglia and a nine-minute video piece in the "Synesthesia" show at Carrie Secrist Gallery, which is up through August 31. Truglia's photos are disarming--as comic as they are sweet, highlighting the incongruity between the elderly women and their electric guitars. Conversely, says Sheppard, "the video is about focusing on moments of action, something dynamic, even when somebody mistakenly plucks two strings." She loops small sections of the rehearsal footage to concentrate on the interaction between the women.

Only one of the players is an experienced musician: Eleanor, 88, was trained on piano and violin, and was once the organist at a suburban temple. And except for some valiant attempts by Eleanor--a naturally charismatic leader--to organize the ladies around her clapped-out tempo, the ensemble plays like thorough novices. Meeting three of the guitarists after a session, as they view their portraits for the first time, it's clear that they have their own theories about the project. "I don't play the guitar," says Minna upon being told she's been doing just that twice a week for several months. But the subject of music elicits vivid memories: Lodelin recounts decades of singing "sacred music" with her husband; Minna wishes her eldest son--"an expert in stringed instruments"--were around; Eleanor authoritatively announces that she's always preferred classical guitar.

The women are clearly enamored of Sheppard and thrilled to be involved in something so different from their regular routine. They have a barrage of questions for her--about her life and about the project. "Did it accomplish for you what you wanted it to?" they ask. She nods. "Some really beautiful sounds came out of it."

"At our age," says Minna, "I think to start something we've never done before is a good thing."


The Libertines

by John Dugan


Back in the days when the Reader had ample pages to fill it encouraged writers to go long whenever possible. I'm glad I had the opportunity to riff on the Libertines.


How Much Chaos Is Too Much Chaos? 

So far the Libertines are still a step ahead of their own cloud of dust.

The Libertines at Metro, 10/9

Must the show always go on? In the late 80s, when I was in high school, I drummed for a punk band called Indian Summer. We had two gigs booked in the last few months before I left for college, but our singer and guitarist both refused to play--they were feuding, and the guitarist claimed to have come down with mono. Determined to leave northern Virginia on a high note, I decided that the shows must go on and enlisted two buddies home from college to fill in. The new guitarist was a local star--a semipro skater who looked like a blond version of Ian McCulloch. He learned four of our originals and added about five covers to our repertoire, turning us from Dischord-model punks into a college bar band with taste. The new singer stood way off to one side of the stage and sang at the wall. Our sets were tight, but the audiences looked stunned--I'm sure they would've gotten angry if they hadn't been so confused. People were still razzing me about it ten years later.

If you've read one word about the Libertines, you already know who they've had to replace onstage, time and time again. Front man Pete Doherty has made such a mess of himself and the band with an excruciatingly well-publicized addiction to crack and heroin that he makes Keith Moon look sensible. Repeated visits to treatment centers in London don't seem to have helped, and this summer Doherty aborted a detoxifying stay at the Thamkrabok monastery in Thailand after less than a week. Upon his return to the UK he was promptly arrested for possession of a switchblade. Last Saturday, when the Libertines came to the Metro, Doherty was an ocean away--his side project, Babyshambles, played a gig in London on October 6.

The Libertines stumbled straight into the big time with their 2002 debut, Up the Bracket, and even without Doherty's antics they'd probably be the most talked-about band in Britain right now--their second full-length, The Libertines (Rough Trade), hit the UK charts at number one when it came out this summer. Mick Jones of the Clash produced both albums, Peter Perrett of the Only Ones has joined them onstage and in the studio, and last fall former Creation Records boss Alan McGee signed on as their manager. The band's been held up as London's "authentic" answer to the Strokes--organic, spontaneous, unhinged, and enthralling. The British music magazine NME, no doubt hard-pressed to find an appropriately hyperbolic metaphor after squandering so many on Starsailor and the Darkness, has said the Libertines rock "like God on an angel dust bender."

Of course, Chicagoans may never get to see the band in one piece. The Libertines have managed a few shows in the States with Doherty: in April and May of 2003 they played New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, and the Coachella festival in California and appeared on Letterman. But coleader Carl Barat had already been forced to front the band alone before Up the Bracket was even finished, and in June 2003 the band drafted a guitar tech to finish a European tour. Doherty was also absent for the Libertines' first proper U.S. tour that summer, just as he is for the second. Meanwhile Babyshambles missed scheduled gigs in July and August and canceled another in Scotland this month.

But Doherty hasn't been kicked out of the Libertines, and Barat has said that he's welcome back anytime--provided, of course, that he's clean. The two front men are best friends, and though on the records Doherty takes the lion's share of the lead vocals, they're credited as cowriters on most of the songs. Onstage they often share a mike, pressed together nipple to nipple, their T-shirts ripped off--a guileless intimacy that makes these pretty boys look "gayer than the Scissor Sisters" (NME again). In the summer of 2003, Doherty burglarized Barat's apartment and spent two months in prison, but as soon as he was released the pair met for a drink--and the Libertines ended up playing an unannounced gig that night. The British music press has printed every detail of the band's sordid, heartbreaking story, and who can blame them? This isn't some puffed-up scandal about a pop band cuffed by bobbies for public urination--this is actual drama.

Partway through the Libertines' set at Metro last Saturday, my date said, "They're playing as if they have something to prove." And they do. The new record is a mess, a beautiful loser, sometimes sustained by charisma alone. The riffs constantly seem like they're about to fall apart, and the unvarnished production accentuates the plunking of picks on strings. It's lovable in its own way but ultimately a step down from Up the Bracket and the subsequent I Get Along EP. In a phone interview Barat insisted that the band "felt optimistic" making it, but the music tells a different story--the brash confidence of Bracket has given way to hesitation and insecurity. It's not the record it seems to want to be--and it's maddening to hear such a great band falling so clearly short of its potential. Even the mix sounds wimpy next to the sound the Libertines get from their current touring setup, which uses a wall of four amplifiers for the two guitars alone.

Compared to their loose but enthusiastic gig at the Empty Bottle in August 2003, the Libertines were all business at Metro, and they were better for it. With minimal banter between hearty swigs of Jameson's, they stormed through 23 songs in about an hour and a half. Every few numbers Barat, bassist John Hassall, and replacement guitarist Anthony Rossomando would fall into a huddle with drummer Gary Powell, as if it were fourth and goal with seconds to go. And when they cranked back up after each of these little conferences, they nailed song after song with bravado and purpose. (Rossomando, the band's "American cousin" as Barat calls him, is also in Boston's Damn Personals--and, in the interest of full disclosure, seven years ago he played trumpet with my old band Chisel on one tour.)

I've never seen Doherty sing live (except on TV), and I know I'd miss his onstage chemistry with Barat if I'd ever felt it in the first place. But Barat's voice, slightly deeper and coarser, is fine by me, and he has no trouble moving between careless cool, romantic nostalgia, and fevered intensity. As a front man he more than held his own on Saturday: on "What a Waster" he sounded electrified, and to kick off the lead riff of "Last Post on the Bugle" he spun on his cowboy boots like a figure skater.

The band opened with the jangly rave-up "The Delaney," a B side that's also on the EP. "Some run from trouble, some meet it halfway," Barat sang--a lyric it'd be hard not to hear as addressed to his absent friend. For the rest of the night the band skimmed the cream from the new album and combined it with some more top-shelf B sides and the best songs from Bracket. Tunes like "What Katie Did," which sounds tentative and disorganized on The Libertines--it's obvious the band couldn't pound everything into shape during the short stints Doherty was around to record--were absent from the set entirely. The Pogues-y punk of "Mayday" stopped and started precisely, and the brooding "Road to Ruin" was so much better than the album version that I didn't realize it was the same song until I got home and went back to the CD. A year ago at the Bottle the band had met cries of "Where's Pete?" from obnoxious fans, but at Metro nobody heckled at all.

The set wrapped up with "Boys in the Band," "The Good Old Days," and "What a Waster"--huge-sounding songs, with backing vocals from Hassall beefing up the melodies and plenty of Powell's endearingly overdone, tom-heavy drum fills. The encore was even more impassioned, tearing from a snotty version of "Horrorshow" to a blazing "Narcissist" and then into "What Became of the Likely Lads"--one of the brightest spots on The Libertines, where Barat and Doherty trade lines and wonder "What became of forever? We'll never know." Finally the band machine-gunned away that aftertaste of regret with "I Get Along."

Though Barat has proved that he and the band can make it with or without Doherty, he barely seems to have considered whether he could do it without his cowriter in the long run. "I've got a few nice ones on the new record," he says. "But maybe I'll have to. I don't know, we'll see." He may find out sooner than he'd like. Doherty doesn't appear to be making great strides toward recovery. And in September, Babyshambles released a tune online called "Gang of Gin" that calls out both Barat and Alan McGee by name: "I'll tell you my story / The treachery, it bores me / Carl and McGee both promised me / It would not happen this way."

In the Libertines bio at, Mick Jones is quoted as saying, "I think they're the most important band in Britain today." But it's worth remembering that the Clash was hamstrung by drummer Topper Headon's drug problems even as it seemed poised to conquer America with Combat Rock. The Libertines are effectively down a man already, and they don't have anything like London Calling under their belts yet.