Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Warehouse of Dreams

A piece of Troy

There was once
a guy named Troy
who tried to share
with everyone his own
brand of joy

Yet every crooked hat
or crazy dance
couldn’t reconcile
the man
with the broken boy

What he
didn’t know
was that his psycho
seeds grew in me
and everywhere the wind would blow

Giving life
to beats
and day-glo streets
that once were bleak
before the freak show

And there will always be
A piece of joy eternally
It goes on
It goes on

DJ Jesse De La Pena was the first DJ to tour and record with the innovative jazz group, Liquid Soul, and throughout the 1990s he was voted hands-down as the best Chicago DJ. Artist DZine has carried his “punk funk” style of fine art to galleries throughout the United States and Europe. DJ Johnny Fiasco has worked with artists as diverse as Justin Timberlake and K.D. Lang, and he tours all over the world. DJ Chunk-A-Bud (ohh, come on now, it’s not that funny) created the house classic, “Zig Zag,” and that single just sold for $67.50 on Ebay. Bryan Sperry is an artist who has been commissioned by various restaurants and the upwardly mobile in Chi-Town. Jake Austen has created “Rocktober” magazine, the Chic-A-Go-Go kid’s dance show, and his own band The Goblins. What do all of these people have in common? They are just some of the folks who came of age in the mid-to-late 1980s at the underground party in Chicago called Club Naked.

Club Naked sounded dangerous to mis viejitos. My parents, who were trying very hard to understand their creatively-inclined teenage daughter, put their only girl on a Halsted Street bus headed toward a place called Club Naked on Chicago’s South Side. They prayed all the way home, and prayed some more at home, too. Oh, and I never mentioned to them that the club was illegal. Perhaps there was some danger there, but this place clearly inspired success. How did that happen?

I first heard about Club Naked from Jake. Jake was one of the most popular guys at Kenwood Academy, my college-prep high school, but not because he was a jerk jock. He liked to dress up like Elvis, he created a club called the Dick Tracy Crimestoppers, he loved to paint, and he liked everyone. Everyone had a friend in Jake and he always knew how to have a good time, so when he was passing the Club Naked flyers out, I figured it was probably a good thing. Still, I waited months until finally going. What decided this for me was that I went to an end of the summer party that Jake threw – packed and complete with police to let us know when it was over – and I saw Troy there. Troy, curly blond and bony, was in the basement where the music and strobe lights were going, and he was swinging off of one of the pipes along the ceiling to the music, allowing his feet and legs to slip all over the condensation that had accumulated on the floor. He looked insane. When Jake told me that Troy was one of the guys who ran the Club Naked parties, I made a mental note to remember to go.

My friends Norma, Vivian, Nancy and I finally went one night when we were totally bored and listening to the late night new wave and house mixes on the radio. We went thinking that it wouldn’t be much and when we saw the cheap X-mas lights strung out in front of the warehouse entrance, our hopes sunk even lower. We were met with Sang at the entrance, the dude in charge of making sure the cover was paid and that everyone was alcohol-free and not so old that the underage girls were in danger. Joe, an enormous Filipino guy, was there to make sure people took thin Sang seriously. Inside, after climbing a couple flights, there was a huge space where kids in leather jackets and spiked hair and/or kids in shiny pants and box haircuts sat around and talked. They milled about the door to the dance area, and the music we heard was really good! In the dance area, we saw just about any type of person you can think of. White guys in t-shirts and Converse, Latinos in long ponytails, black girls with mowhawks, Asian guys in gold chains. The walls were plastered in flyers and original artwork that glowed under an impressive light display. And the music! One minute it was “My Forbidden Lover,” by TAPPS, the next it was “Join In the Chant,” by Nitzer Ebb, and the next it was “Sex and Violence,” by The Exploited. I WAS IN HEAVEN. Or, maybe I was home.

Like many other arty kids during that time, I went to a lot of the kiddie clubs that had sprung up. Medusa’s was the most elaborate and most popular; McGreevey’s split the punk/new wave kids and house kids into different rooms; the Prime and Tender was sleazy and played the worst music (Rick Astley was NOT meant for the club). These places were run by adults who wanted to make money off of kids, and there were resulting degrees of suckiness due to that fact.

Club Naked was different. It was THE place for Chicago’s emerging artists. Why? Did I mention that kids ran the club? Oh, yes, that was the illegal part. Troy, his brother Adam (DJ Chunk-A-Bud), Bryan Sperry and Johnny Fiasco got together and created a place where Bryan could plaster his art everywhere, Adam and Johnny could practice DJing, and Troy could create original music with Bryan and anyone else who wanted to be part of the mix. Their music group, Naked (which later would evolve into The United Freaks of America), was regularly mixed in with the club hits and the kids dug it. As months passed, new ideas came about that led to fashion shows with original fashions made by local teens and galleries with artwork by the clubgoers. Basically, every aspect of the club was run by young artists from Chicago, and technically, due to underage and licensing laws, this was all illegal. Kids created a place that was safe, inspiring and that broke the boundaries of race and ethnicity and even creative tastes, yet it had to be hidden from adults. Silly, isn’t it?

It was a creative coalition of teenagers, uniting as a group to follow our dreams,” said Bryan Sperry in an interview, when asked about the place he helped make. “It gave me an art career, made me an independent artist and musician, and gave me the ability to cope with something innovative. Without that, who knows what I would be?” Bryan remembered fondly of people coming in from everywhere, “from the ghettos to the North Side – it was awesome.”

Johnny Fiasco recalled the humble beginnings during a recent phone interview. “I literally learned how to mix with people out on the dance floor,” he said, laughing. “I was editing stuff from the radio and playing it 10 times a night, but the energy was so supportive, no one cared.” He mentioned that the team, despite being young and without experience, was pretty effective. “Troy hustled for the space, I did the technical stuff and sound, Bryan was the artist. It would just click, it was all business…if only we had kept it that way….” Johnny’s voice dropped as he took a moment to think about how things have changed in roughly 20 years.

The most recent development is that Troy didn’t wake up about three months ago. I found this out by coming across his website and seeing the notice for the wake. I was not surprised by this, but the impact of what I felt surprised me. “He was the most vibrant, charismatic guy I’ve ever met,” said Johnny. “The whole point of Club Naked was to play our own music and display our own art. Bryan and Troy made music for hours and hours; I don’t know why they didn’t pursue it more,” Johnny wondered, referring to passed up connections and possible deals with labels. Johnny split with his longtime friends in the mid-1990s and worked on some projects with Cajual Records, and that is when his independent career was established and began to soar. Troy and the others, in the meantime, fell deeper into drug use.

This is when the lines get really difficult to write. Why is it that so many people who were inspired by Club Naked have gone on to make amazing art and Troy isn’t around to share the joy? Did Troy take all the risks for those of us who wouldn’t have? Is it fair that we learned from his risk-taking and have grown, but he isn’t here to share in our successes? It might be easy, and corny as hell, to paint Troy as an angel who came to Earth to inspire artists everywhere. It might also be easy to paint him as an artistic cliché, caught up in the drug thing and in the end, not too successful. But when I look at all the successes of people who were touched by him, many who made reference to his gift for inspiration at his wake, neither one of those images fit. Nothing fits. I just keep coming back to the feeling that if I had felt just a bit more lonely, just a bit more confused, I could’ve made different decisions that didn’t lead to life. It’s like I knew Troy was right about art, and I followed that ideal, but something else in me kept saying, “follow life, too – keep your ass alive.”

After a bit more talk, Johnny and I agreed that what helped us focus was having a strong family base. “My instinct told me that my parents care about me, I want a family,” he said. What Troy and Adam’s father did pass on to them was artistry and craftsmanship. Francis – they always called him by his first name – had his own interior design shop and he specialized in custom wallpapers, murals and furniture. Troy, Adam, Bryan, and Johnny all apprenticed with Francis. However, Johnny claims that the other three guys had family stories that were heavier than the ones most of us have to carry. Having dated Adam on and off during the 80s and 90s, I have to agree. I was witness to pain…that is the only thing I can call it, but I was also witness to amazing talent. That talent is what I choose to remember about Troy and his cohorts. All any of us who went to/worked at Club Naked can do is continue writing, DJing, painting, singing, laughing, screaming, and letting the world know that we were witness to the artistic love that showed us what kind of art is the best art.

“It was completely non-commercial,” Johnny recalled. “It was homegrown. It was crazy that everyone wanted my job. People from the Power Plant, the Music Box came to our parties and remembered our names when we were older and looking to DJ. Those places would play this or that, but if you wanted all of the above, you had to go to Halsted and Cermak (22nd St.). We had Mexicans, African Americans, Polish kids – it seems like now you can’t even get these kids to go to the same high school. Times are changing…just from playing clubs here and there, they seem based on top level income, they seem segregated. If someone wanted to make this happen now, you would have to align the right things, politically and socially.”

I don’t think Troy would think about that stuff – he’d just do it.

DJ Jesse De La Pena:

DZINE (Carlos Rolon): DZINE'S BOOK
(exhibit to 2/3/06)

DJ Johnny Fiasco: (check the Feb. dates)

Bryan Sperry:

Jake Austen: