I live in Wicker Park, the Chicago neighborhood of High Fidelity-John-Cusack-standing-forlorn-in-the-rain fame, where on an average day to and from work I pass a tumbledown band of neo-bohemians playing for spare change, salsa-merengue drifting from the six corners’ taco stand, punk screaming from the EXIT bar and various hip-hop mutations banging from the Subterranean. Summer Saturday nights on the hipster WP scene have an easy air, where the crowds do not move around so much as they ebb and flow, spilling in and out of clubs without covers. Wild-bearded hipsters wheel by on improbable bikes—8-foot tall Day-Glo frames with crow’s nests for seats, escapees from some circus.

For a while my father owned a club on Damen, the Reservation Blues, and it was there that I met her one Saturday night—a girl my father had booked— the first and probably last musician I will ever date.

She was playing Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” on an acoustic guitar, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray beside her, spawning smoke twisters. She looked like the inspiration for a gypsy woman blues: wild curly hair, green corduroy jacket and strategically-torn jeans, there were piercings: scaffold, nose, lip, tongue—she glittered in sensory areas.

“Can you play guitar like your daddy?” she asked me between sets in a mock Southern drawl. No, she didn’t, but that was the thrust of it; that was how I heard it. I couldn’t play guitar, but I had a writing thing, and that was good enough for her, she let me in. We were both black and white mixed; her swirl had a Caribbean twist—two young brown people in our mid-twenties, playing our respective scenes.

We spent our first dates hipster-watching in the afternoons around Bucktown hangouts, leveling snark-rays at eavesdropped conversations, sarcastic commentary running sotto voce between us, occasionally putting us in the line of angry horn-rimmed glasses. Guess What This Place Used to be Before Gentrification was another of our favorite activities, invented by her, followed up with research by me.

Standing in front of the Nelson Algren house on Evergreen Street I finally built the nerve to first-kiss her. I couldn’t believe she let me, it felt like trespassing—like some daredevil shit— and now it seems as though I felt the first rumblings of a future kinship with Algren that day; the ghost of de Beauvoir flickering in the third floor window.

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For a while I followed her to shows on the weekends, mostly small gigs, upstate backwater bars she called intimate, where washroom graffiti spread to the rest of the walls, too. Smell of piss and wet wood. There seemed to be at least one man leering at her from the back of every one of those gigs, beer in-hand, muttering lewd things; that same one then seemed to replicate and span all the venues, like a paper people chain. “Bet I could make that sing,” the vulgar cut-outs sneered.

In the beginning I played it cool, laughed it off—I was confident I had her. Those guys may have looked but they didn’t have the key: only I could read the jeans-and-panties flesh prints, circled around her waist, like braille.

On days she wasn’t performing, the last place she wanted to be was a club, or a bar, and I loved that about her. Outside of her stage persona she was a homebody, like me, an alcoholic body and a beautiful body I loved from tipsy night to hung-over morning. We often hit my Xanax prescription first thing for pain relief; just as often we started right back drinking again—things often got messy. We didn’t know how to exist comfortably around each other, around anyone, without alcohol. Two pathological nerds who shared an idea of the perfect night in—boy, girl, bottle and a board game—Scrabble was our little secret. Missionary-style Scrabble, Scrabble-under-the- influence, strip Scrabble and Scrabble where the rules were you had to play in minimalist fashion, building toward some Raymond Carver story—bonuses not allowed.

But behind all of it was the cold certainty that I could not keep her as she was at home, that some alien pull—like the beams in horror movies that abduct pick-up trucks whole—would keep drawing her back to the stage, away from me.

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2008 was the year when a lot of the bands showing up around Wicker Park venues took their names from those great recession headlines: TOO BIG TO FAIL, THE COMPLEX FINANCIAL INSTRUMENTS and of course, the chin-jutting subversives of marquee territory (Tonight WE’RE FUCKED FOR MONEY). She was playing in one of the latter at the time, and I hated it. I was sure she had something going on with the lead guitarist. She spent many nights getting lost on her way home from shows; I spent many mornings pretending not to care. It was that year when our relationship devolved to a dutiful thing, conducted mostly by phone; our together-time decided by the two of us picking out slots on the calendar’s grid, drolly calling out numbers to see what would work, like Battleship.

I am convinced that toward the end she began inserting fraudulent words into the game out of malice: tiskets and taskets and other quasilogisms staking unreasonable claims on the board, the Scrabble pieces thumped to hot nonsense one night, a wild tile ricocheted to floatation in my rum and Coke. She gave one last effort to teach me to play the blues on her guitar, wedged in the space behind me and the back of a wooden chair—her chin shelved on my shoulder, fingers ghosting mine—a simple 1-4-5 progression, but I could not play it; could not get the finger patterns.

“This isn’t working.”

She tells me this at a café on Milwaukee Ave. one night before walking out, and it’s pretty much all she says, leaving just a view of a drizzly Chicago street, Milwaukee’s lights smeared on the rain-slick window: neon green, brake light red, street lamp orange. Hopper colors. I’m the lone customer at the counter in Nighthawks. It just has to be raining on a night like this. But I would not give in to the Cusackian impulse. Would not go outside and be forlorn in that rain; leave sopping wet expressions in letter or voice mail.

“Are you alright there, hon?”

I understand that waiters and waitresses would like to turn tables as quickly and smoothly as possible; have you happily served and on your way without things getting weird, e.g. the prospect of a man actually calling the “bottomless coffee” bluff clean through to dawn, face stunned like witness-to-murder, but I wish that waitstaff could nudge things along without sham inquiries into states of well-being—I know the waitress is really this close to just plunking a fucking omelet down on the table whether it’s called for or not – “you really should have seen this coming a long way off, hon”—but these things have a way of sneaking up like Tax Day and so now I’m just trying to hold myself back from the store with black bags because this is the stuff 3-day binges are made of, sweating caffeine as the line of questioning turns philosophical:

“Everything alright with everything, hon?”

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The sky is cryin’, look at the tears roll down the street
The sky is cryin’, look at the tears roll down the street
I’m wading in tears lookin’ for my baby, and I wonder where can she be?
(Elmore James, “The Sky is Crying,” Fire Records, 1959)

In order to fully appreciate Elmore James’ 1959 classic, it is essential to approach James’ slide guitar as a living thing, a second voice. The King of the Slide works his magic here, making the guitar talk, a sort of improvised duet, which is, at its roots, what the blues form really is: a postbellum call-and-response stripped of its audience, singer and guitar left to play both parts; a music of alienation, disorienting upheaval and newfound loneliness, nearing age 30.

One attempt at transliteration would give us this:

The sky is cryin’ [slide guitar]: BWANG-yang-wang-yang

Look at the tears roll down the street

The sky is cryin’ [slide guitar]: BWANG-yang-wang-yang

Look at the tears roll down the street

(James’ bwang-yang-wang-yang here comes second only to the bwang, bwang, bwang of “Shake Your Money Maker” to this listener’s ears.)

Backing him, James’ Broomdusters are in perfect form. Miraculously, we can detect no sign of bitterness in James’ delivery, nor of inebriation (as in some of the behind-the-scenes studio conversations that exist, where slurred confrontations with the sound engineer can be overheard).1 As a lifelong alcoholic and runner of moonshine, James probably would have been tempted to walk to that liquor store just up North Ave. in order to buy a fifth of vodka and play a fucking game of online Scrabble with some anonymous girl whose cheating could not be so easily detected.

James’ melismatic, sandpapery delivery of “bad” in “I’ve got a bad feeling my baby don’t love me no more” (a baaaaaaad feeling) is haunting: we know we are in truly ominous territory here.

If we are to believe Elmore James’ account of his own song, its inspiration came about when he and Fire Records producer Bobby Robinson were riding around on Chicago’s West Side in a violent downpour while discussing a record deal.2 This fact, however, has little bearing on what I know to be the truth: essentially, that the song can only have been inspired by a beautiful girl who went away

The cause of James’ despair in the song is never referred to by name. She is simply an anonymous “baby,” as is often the case with the blues, referring possibly to a specific baby of James’, a composite of several babies, or, most certainly, a lil’ brown- skin mama who walked out on him for the lead guitarist in her side band, the guitarist with one of those MySpace pages that somehow manages to be sort of cool again, but only for musicians and who was at that very moment spooning with her and learning this week’s meaning of her hieroglyphic ink, fingering her fretboard while I’m Cusack-cryin’-in-the-rain.

Homesick James’ bass walks coolly up and down the record’s grooves. Elmore James would die of heart failure on cousin Homesick’s couch in Chicago, 1963, age 45. Alone.

If James had a cell phone or email back in the ’50s (lack of which my father once lamented), I like to think that the song might look something like this:

The cell phone ain’t vibratin’, can’t you see the inbox cold and empty?

The cell phone ain’t vibratin’, can’t you see the inbox cold and empty?

Said I saw you with that guy at The Double Door last week but still I’m sortin’ through this spam folder lookin’ for my special sender, and I wonder where can she be?

Yet, even as it stands, the influence of “The Sky is Crying” on subsequent blues history is indisputable, the roster of the artists who would come to cover it reading like a who’s who of blues and rock greats, with everyone from Albert King, Hound Dog Taylor and Stevie Ray Vaughan to The Yardbirds, the Allman Brothers and Etta James having paid tribute, cementing James’ place in blues history as a truly badass singer/guitarist who could really rip a joint up with the kind of music that sometimes “had the girls wild, stripping their damn clothes right on the floor at Silvio’s one night,”3 and sometimes had guys walking home from cafés all by themselves—a running/walking time of precisely 2 minutes and 46 seconds—all the way to the end of the song, at which point we learn that the tears have moved beyond the street, and are now rolling down the front door.

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1 Elmore James. Complete Fire & Enjoy Sessions. Collectables, 1995.

2 Franz, Steve. The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James. Tucson: 2003.

3 Dad.