I’m back on the tour bus and get off at the Willis, formerly Sears, Tower. This at one time was the tallest building in the world. I’m here for the Skydeck, which is what the Tower’s observation deck is called. There’s some exhibits to look at on a lower floor after I buy my entry ticket. Then there’s a short film to watch about the construction of the Tower. Then it’s up to the top in a super-fast lift. The views from the Skydeck are phenomenal, I can literally see for miles all around Chicago. It’s another bright, sunny – and cold – day but I don’t think this visitor attraction would be much good if the weather was cloudy or raining. You might not have a choice of course if you only had limited time in the city but without good visibility I’m not sure it’d be worthwhile.
And then there’s the Ledge. It doesn’t matter what they say on their website, or in the exhibits or film downstairs, but from my experience it was a complete mind-f*** that freaked me out when I thought about stepping on / in to it. The human brain is a wonderful thing. It knows that I’m not supposed to walk out of the side of a building when I’m 103 floors up. Despite my eyes telling my brain that there is 1½ inch thick glass all around me to stop me falling in the abyss. You try it. 🙂
It’s quite crowded on the Skydeck – they do regulate how many people they allow up at any one time – but there’s still a lot of folk around. There’s also a lot of shrieking from all the teenagers as they take tentative steps onto one of the Ledges.
Me, I’m just quietly petrified. I stand by the entrance to one Ledge, but just can’t go in. After about five minutes I move to another and do the same. (There are four Ledges, one is reserved for souvenir photographs so you can’t go onto that one unless you pay for the photograph.) I wander about trying to get my head together. I’m not alone in this: I go back to stand by the entrance to one Ledge trying to muster up my courage and folks of all ages, sex, race and size come up, have a look, then start muttering “I can’t do it, I can’t do it…” and walk away. Needless to say of course, that some people just calmly walk up and enter onto the glass without so much as missing a beat.
After about 15 minutes of me farting about, trying to decide whether I’m man or mouse, when I’m still standing by the Ledge entrance, a baby, who can crawl but not walk, is put down on the floor by its mother about a yard away from the Ledge entrance. Whereupon it promptly crawls straight out onto the Ledge without any hesitation. The mother and her family go nuts at this, seeing the child crawling around on a sheet of glass 103 floors up, looking down through the glass onto Chicago below. This strikes me as not being a good thing: the child is too young to have any concept that what it is crawling onto is safe and so it’s a bit worrying if it’s brain doesn’t realise that it should not just crawl out of an opening in the side of a building, so I’d be a bit concerned about it in the future…
At which point I say to myself “this is stupid” and a few seconds later I start to put my foot onto the glass, gradually edging out onto the Ledge – until I make it! The whole experience really did freak me out, but having made it, some kind soul offered to take a photo of me ‘being brave’. 🙂
“Down by the Riverside” * for the Architecture Tour
Time to bid farewell to the Skydeck against the backdrop of more shrieks and screams as the latest victims arrive and decide whether they can do it or not. I get back on the tour bus for a short while and disembark at the Michigan Avenue bridge. Down some steps to the river sidewalk and I buy a ticket for the River Architecture Tour. It’s a great tour, if somewhat expensive in my opinion at nearly $40. The boat goes up and down various branches of the Chicago River and gives a really fascinating view of the city from down on the river. Good commentary as well. It’s still damn cold mind you and the wind is getting up as well.
All Aboard For Union Station
After the river tour I use a proper bus to get to Union Station. The architecture of the station is impressive but the main reason for a visit, being a fan of the movies, is to see the famous staircase from the Potemkin Steps homage in Brian de Palma’s film, The Untouchables (which of course is set in Chicago). It turns out though that there are two staircases in the Great Hall and I’m not sure which one was in the film (and having watched the film again after returning home, I’m none the wiser). The main Great Hall is impressive as well. I find out later that there is an architecture tour of the station but it only runs once a day every two weeks. I’d probably have been out of luck trying to do it even if I’d known about it.
I walk around a bit taking in the architecture then have lunch in a cafe at the station before getting another bus to Navy Pier for an IMAX 3D showing of Gravity. It’s an awesome film, and the 3D works well; the weightless sequences are amazing, I really can’t see how it was done even on the huge IMAX screen.
“Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” ** – Buddy Guy’s Legends
It’s dark now, around 7.30 pm, and I take another bus to Buddy Guy’s Legends club. Expecting to walk straight in, it turns out the club is closed for a private party and will not open until 9 pm. I see a diner just down the street from the club, the South Loop Club, and walk there for some dinner. I’m sitting at the bar perusing the menu but the woman serving behind is really shitty to me for no reason so I decide to move to a table in the main dining area to get away from her, which is much better. It’s the first bit of bad attitude I’ve had in nearly three weeks in the US, and I didn’t do anything to piss her off. Bitch. The food and drink are OK plus they’ve got TVs everywhere showing sports.
I finish up my food and there’s a bit of time until the club opens so I just watch TV. Soon though it’s 9 pm and I’m walking back up the street to Buddy Guy’s and into the club. It’s a world away from Blue Chicago. It’s all very nice and spotlessly clean, very business-like. It has a proper stage, lights and a mixing desk plus a technician controlling everything. But where’s the place’s soul? It hasn’t got one.
I’m one of the first people in but as the club fills up everyone just files inside and politely sits at their nice, square cocktail tables sipping their drinks. There’s a hum of conversation but it’s like being at a corporate function with everyone on their best behaviour – like not wanting ‘to upset the boss’. When the music starts the audience just applaud quietly at the end of each number – in Blue Chicago there’s hollering, whooping and shouting and raucous applause.
Mike, the Buddy regular I met last night, told me that even if he’s not playing on stage, Buddy himself will hang around the bar chatting to everyone and that he’s a very sociable Guy… But Buddy’s not here tonight, the barman telling me he must be away on a gig somewhere. Terry Davidson & the Gears, the band on stage, take a while to get going but they are very good, highly professional and before their break hit a good groove music-wise with a great mix of blues and rock. Sadly though there’s just no buzz or atmosphere in this place. Despite this I decide to stay and hear them out for the second half rather than head back to Blue Chicago. But I don’t get why the audience are so unenthusiastic with such great music?
The band do well for half an hour after the break but they then start playing their own songs rather than known standards or favourites. Which is when the crowd gradually starts to drift away. The audience want the stuff they know, not “Terry’s Tunes”. The playing is highly polished, the sound and lights good, but talk about how to lose an audience. There’s a dance floor in front of the stage but just a few people get up and dance. Maybe it’s just the ‘corporate’ vibe this place has but the dance floor at Blue Chicago was packed out last night.
So by 12.15 am the club is almost empty – which means whatever lacklustre atmosphere there was is now non-existent. Yet before their break earlier every table was full and loads of people were standing around. It’s a great shame – they could have continued building momentum after the break and maybe got things going with the audience. But they lost the plot – and the crowd with it. I’ve had enough as well.
I emailed Mike, the guy from Blue Chicago last night, when I got home to say I found the music good but the atmosphere corporate and sterile. He didn’t reply, which was a shame as I’d like to know if my Legends experience was a one-off or if it’s like that every night.
“Something’s happening here today” ***
I’ve no choice at this hour other than to get a cab back to hotel. Upon arrival, as it’s my last night, I decide I’m not done yet. Blue Chicago is great but as it’s approaching 1 am I decide I’m not going to pay the $8 cover charge to get in (they stay open until 2 am tonight). So, casting caution to the wind, I decide to check out the Underground Wonder Bar again despite last night’s horror show.
And guess what? As I walk through the door some twat on door duty wants a $10 cover charge to let me in. Having obviously had a couple of sherbets by that time of night, I am not quiet about complaining that I’d been here for the past two nights and never had to pay to get in then. “What a cheek”, “what a rip-off”, I rant at him – I may even have swore – but I refuse to pay and turn around to walk out.
I may have been just a little bit noisy because the commotion did not go unheard however and I’m followed out by some guy who asks where I’m from – the old accent thing comes into play again – and on the sidewalk outside he says he heard the ‘conversation’ and he’ll get me in. So we both go back in, him in the lead, and he just tells the doorman to let me in! I’ve no idea who he was, but thank you.
Anyhow, it’s reggae night and Esso! AfroJam FunkBeat are just finishing off on stage and are quite good, so I decide to stay for the second act. The place is already quite full when I arrive. There’s a mixed crowd of races and sexes in the bar but suddenly there’s a huge influx of people, mostly – but not all- white corporate types, all in one group. The bar stools were all taken when I got in so I’m sitting on a bench seat with a table against the wall when a young – and very attractive – blonde lady in her early 20s comes up and asks if the other seats are taken.
“No”, I reply and she sits down next to me and beckons some of her colleagues over. They’re looking after some European customers in town for a visit to their HQ – I never find out what business they’re in – but she starts talking to me as usually happens in American bars and I’m soon off again with the story of the past two or so weeks…
The blonde lady and her colleagues are good company – there’s loads of them and they’ve spread out all around the club, which means the place is really packed out now. These new people drift over to talk to her – I soon realise she must be Queen Bee of their hive – and (of course, her new best friend…) me. They then go off to find someone else to bring over, which suddenly means there’s a constant stream of new faces coming to chat to me – and my new lady friend. Or maybe that’s the other way round?
However the Blonde and me do seem to make some sort of connection. Because with all these people she apparently knows here, who keep coming up to her to say hello, she’s staying put next to me, chattering away. I must be 25 years older than her – and she’s not flirting or coming on to me (trust me, I can tell) but we’re just having a good chat. Must be my UK charm. 🙂
Anyhow, we’re all getting along famously and I’m having a great time. Made even better by the fact that some of Blonde’s ‘friends’ keep buying me drinks, which is great! The banter continues and at 1.30 am the Hurricane Reggae Band arrive on stage. They immediately hit a groove and are very good indeed. I like a bit of reggae every now and again – we white folks all like Bob Marley, no? – but I’m no connoisseur so couldn’t comment on their style or genre but it’s definitely reggae, and it’s very good.
They make a superb sound on stage and get the crowd dancing in no time at all – there’s a really great buzz and vibe in the place. Most the chattering has stopped by now. Well, we had no choice because the band are so loud that we had resorted to shouting to each other. So I turn to face the stage and listen to the music, soaking up the atmosphere.
The reggae beats and grooves continue but some time later, despite the great atmosphere, I realise I’ve hung on in the club for as long as I can. My eyelids are starting to drop. So I get up to leave, looking to say goodbye and say thank you to my new ‘friends’ but everyone’s having such a good time they’re oblivious – or drunk – and I can get no-one’s attention.
So I decide to take my leave and just slip away quietly. Nobody notices me departing. Well. It’s been a long, varied, interesting – and excellent – day for my last full day on the road trip and, sadly, I’m going home tomorrow. I finally get to bed just before 3 am. Knackered. But joyfull.
* Down by the Riverside – traditional gospel song, writer unknown, recorded by many artists including Elvis
** Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues by Buddy Guy
*** Going Underground by The Jam