Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dear Young Man from Bay Village, Ohio

I don’t know if this message will reach you, but I hope that somehow it does.

My name is Ryan, and I’m a 35-year-old man from Chicago (about five hours away from you).  I have two kids of my own, though they are much younger than you. 
I realize you don't know me, but please know that I am a friend.
I recently read about the incident that occurred when some kids from your school invited you over to participate in the ALS ice-bucket challenge, which is supposed to be a real nice thing people have been doing to help raise awareness for some very sick people. When I read about what happened, I became very angry - so angry that my whole body was literally shaking. 
As mentioned above, I have two kids of my own. My six-year-old son is autistic, and I understand you are as well.  As recently as four years ago, I didn't even really know what autism was. I'm still learning about it everyday, and I think most people still don't really understand what it is. Though our son still faces many challenges ahead, my wife and I are extremely proud of the progress he has made in his short time on this Earth.  He is the smartest, sweetest little boy we could ask for.
Often, my wife and I watch him on the playground, while he interacts with other kids his age.  He gets so excited at the idea of making new friends!  Unfortunately, it's sometimes difficult for him to interact with "neurotypical" kids, because he sometimes gets excited and starts firing off facts.  Often, the other kids look at him weird, run away from him, or just ignore him completely.  I know this frustrates him, because he really wants to play with friends that aren't his little sister, which is quite understandable! It frustrates his mother and I as well, because we know how fun he is to be around, and we feel like he doesn't always get a fair shot. 
I wonder if you also feel like people don't always take the time to get to know you?
I'm beginning to realize that, even with all the progress our son continues to make (his mother does a real good job of helping him monitor his diet and vitamins), he will consistently have these challenges as he grows up. He may even get teased, "pranked", or even bullied, because he is a little bit different.  When I read about what happened to you, I couldn't help but think of my own son, and the situations he may encounter one day.
So, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you some of the things that I will one day tell my own son, when he grows up to be teenager, just like you are now.
Firstly, please know that everything happening now is only a prologue to the rest of your life -  to the best parts of your life!  Years from now, these people and these events - as painful as they may be now - will be "in the past." The best parts of your life are truly are still ahead of you!  Think of all the things you have to look forward to - moving out one day and getting your own place, travelling the world, staying out as late as you want, falling in love, maybe even getting married and having kids of your own someday.  I don't know what your interests are, but if you are like me (I'm basically a 14 year-old in a grown-up's body), you have things like the new Star Wars and Avengers movies to look forward to. YES!  Also, in your lifetime, you will see holograms, virtual-reality, automated cars and other technological advances that we can only dream of today.  The future is potentially very awesome, and you are going to get to experience it.
The other thing that I'm realizing as I get older is that humans are scared of things they don't fully understand.  While some embrace change and try to understand people that are different from them, other people - usually weaker-minded people - feel threatened, and react angrily.  I think that's what those kids that pulled this shameful prank on you are - weak and scared. Do you know what happens to weak & scared people? They get left behind by life.

I read recently that, according to, 1 in 68 US children are on the autism spectrum. Hopefully, through your story, we can all learn how to better communicate with and treat our autistic friends & family.
In conclusion, I'm sure you would do just about anything to make this whole thing go away (I wish I could make it go away for you). It may not be tomorrow, or even next week, but please know - THIS WILL GO AWAY.  One day, you'll be a grown-up, and you'll occasionally think about that really bad day when you were 14, but it will seem like a distant memory, from a lifetime ago. And you'll say, "man, high school really sucked sometimes." Which, I promise you, is what most people think about high school. 
I think it shows how STRONG you are that you went back to school already. I'm not sure I could be as brave as you are. I'm sure your mom, dad and older brother are very proud of you, as they should be.
There are a lot of people out there supporting you, and I'm proud to be one of them.  Stay strong, and don't give up. 
Your friend from Chicago,
Ryan Fergus

Sunday, May 20, 2012

To Be Young: Riding Shotgun with Joseph Sell

When I first met Joe Sell, he was intimidating as all hell.

He was a year older than me in school, sported long blond hair, had no curfew whatsoever, smoked cigarettes and cruised around in a beat-up old Cadillac. In short, he was mesmerizing.

On the other hand, I was an incredibly sheltered suburban "good kid" and wanted desperately to fully explore the freedom & semi-dangerous lifestyle he was already well-inhabiting. That's really why I was drawn to rock 'n' roll in the first place after all - larger-than-life personalities like Joe Sell.

The early days are slowly becoming a blur to me as I get older. Shows in basements, graduating to shows in clubs & eventually sold-out shows in, well, clubs still. At the time though, the rise felt meteoric. All my teenage fantasies of record labels flying us out to New York & national radio stations playing our songs were coming true. The five of us were experiencing our dreams together and I know Joe felt both as ecstatic & overwhelmed as I did.

Him and I didn't get close - really close anyway - until later. Those first years after Throwing the Game was released, we toured incessantly - one year we played something like 300 shows (Adam would know the exact number) - it was something only insane people would do. We were desperately trying to jump start an "under-performing-by-major-label-standards" album & took any tour - any routing - we could get ourselves booked on in an effort to win over crowds & make our name outside of Chicago. Everyday was an uphill battle, but it was also the most exciting time of our lives.

99% of our touring years were done the way most groups tour - with a van and trailer. While we were able to pamper ourselves with overnight hotel rooms at the Super 8 motel chain when possible (high-class accommodations surely) - those long, seemingly endless drives - trudging through snowstorms in the Dakotas, gunning it in heat-stricken dashes across the endless Southwest desert - that was all us - together and alone in a four-bench church van.

And it's there, in the smelly, claustrophobic confines of that white, steel tube on wheels, that I have perhaps my fondest memories of my old friend Joe.

He loved to drive the van. In fact, he was insistent on it. I still can't be sure if it was more of a calming activity for him, or if he just didn't want any of us nitwits (wisely) endangering his safety. Adam doesn't drive, Stubhy's a terrible driver (love you man) and I can't not speed, which made everyone on-edge every time I got behind the wheel. So, by default, Joe did the majority of the driving our entire touring career. That's a lot of mileage.

Every time we had a night drive, I hoped Joe was going to be behind the wheel. In fact, I'd time my "van naps" with his, so that when he woke up & took over the wheel, I could jump in shotgun to be by his side.

Why? Because sitting up front with him during these drives - cruising through this amazingly weird & mysterious country together - were magical moments for me. Especially at night.

We had three main records at night - Being There by Wilco, Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams & Faithless Street by Whiskeytown. People were always surprised to discover we didn't much care for ska or pop-punk as we got older.

"You say you want to play country, but you're in a punk-rock band."

Whiskeytown - "Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel"

Anyway, allow me to set the scene - The van is dead silent except for the hum of the engine. The only vehicle on some deserted country highway in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the guys have settled down from the post-show buzz and are laying down in their benches - calling their girls, sleeping off the free booze etc. The sky is full of stars more plentiful than we would ever see in Chicago - so bright they light up the entire horizon. The two of us - Joe at the wheel, me sitting in shotgun - listening to those same damn records - over & over - talking about...well, the things we always talked about I guess - music, shows, books, & girls.

My job was to entertain him, to keep him awake at 3AM while he's driving though the winding Colorado mountains and the endlessly unremarkable, landmark-free plains of the Midwest. It was a job I took very seriously. I'd make mix discs in our dressing room before our set for us to listen to that night, trying to get him into whatever new band I was into that week (he usually hated it). Joe abhorred "hipster" music & culture in general - I always felt like he was born in the wrong decade and would have fared far better in the 30's or 40's - simpler, gentler times. Less bullshit. I think he felt that way too - displaced.

Regardless, we'd pass the time however we could - texting girls in different time zones to see if they were still awake (making lewd requests if they were). Sharing awful, sugary truck stop snacks (he delighted in eating those gas-station hot dogs - mainly to disgust everyone else; he was no health nut). I'd even read to him - by flashlight as to not wake the other guys - passages from Hammer of the Gods, On the Road & Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We'd get inspired by these debauchery-fueled tales and hatch plans to intensify the chaos level on tour. We'd often succeed.  

Sure, we had cell phones then, but you couldn't surf the web with any reasonable speed and we had to wait until we got to the hotel to check our Myspace (!) pages. For hours & hours at a time, we'd just have laughs, late-night confessions, the occasional scandalous text message (which we always shared with each other - sorry girls) and Jeff Tweedy's gravelly voice soothing us as we cruised through the night...together and alone...trying to stay awake until the next adventure...

We roomed together in California when both Throwing the Game and Commitment were being recorded. It essentially just came down to the fact that our personalities were similar enough that we wouldn't kill each other during the stressful, but often mundane recording process. During the first record, we both vowed to abstain from...self-pleasure until our guitar & drum tracks were done, so that the "pent-up aggression" & "rawness" made it onto the tape. It was a ludicrous idea, but it made sense at the time. He caved first. Said he lasted about a week-and-a-half, but he was probably lying.

During Commitment, we were older, less wide-eyed & a bit more cynical. While the other guys tracked their parts, we'd spend days in our darkened Redondo Beach apartment, watching the DVD extras of all of the Lord of the Rings movies, anxious to get back on tour, in the van, on the road.

Joe, with his fair skin and limited tolerance of SoCal douchebaggery, wasn't much for the beach scene. So I stayed with him at our place, watching featurettes about the costume direction for Hobbits. Neither of us minded.

When his mood served him right, Joe could make me (or anyone really) feel like the center of the universe. During the best times, we were like Butch & Sundance - pillaging & plundering together, leaving entire cities charred & destroyed in our wake. We roomed together on the road too and therefore managed to forge a comfortability with each other that still confounds me today.

Private phone calls to home always within earshot, "friends" staying overnight in our hotel room, coordinating bathroom times etc. Privacy goes out the window when you are literally together 24 hours a day.

Wake up, van ride, club, eat, show, party, hotel, sleep, repeat.

I even shaved his chest once in Jersey one summer when it was like 105 degrees out - with my electric razor. Oddly enough, it didn't seem that that odd at the time.

But, just as easily as those blood-brother moments took place, a switch would seemingly flip without warning and he could hold you firmly at arms length. The warmness would suddenly leave his eyes and he had the ability to make me feel like a spurned lover like that. While I built up my own defense to it over the years, it always hurt - in fact it stung like a slap across the face. When he was occasionally cruel to his girlfriends over the years, I would secretly sympathize with them - because I knew how they likely felt.

The later, more recent years are harder for me to describe, partly because we were less & less a daily part of each other's lives. On the road in 2007, the band had a now-infamous meltdown at a truck-stop in Texas and it was the last tour we were ever to do. Things were never quite the same for Joe and I - we went from spending every-waking-minute together to seeing each other once, twice a month.

During our hiatus, I went back to school, got married, got a day job, had kids - the normal things that most people end up doing. Joe, for his part, never did what one was supposed to do. He was a contrarian to the bone - he'd always root for the underdog and wasn't afraid to take the unpopular stance. He never wavered on his beliefs, but he never shoved them down anybody's throat either. Not many people can say that they are genuinely free - liberated and unburdened by societal norms.

Joe Sell could say that. He was truly a free man.

In a lot of ways, Joe Sell was the epitome of the underdog. He was always fighting uphill - to pay the rent, to keep his car running etc. The rest of us would joke about how we'd need to reach him by carrier pigeon for band practice since his cell phone was turned-off every other week. He'd leave his suitcase at some girl's house on the road, forget it and just hit the salvation army in the next town with nary a concern. Things like clothes, bills, material possessions - these things just weren't important to Joe like they are to you and I.

It was confounding to us, but it was an essential part of his charm.  In a consumer-obsessed culture like ours is, Joe shunned all of it - he favored a book and some Hank Williams on the radio. Nobody else was like him that I had ever met. Nobody.

Listen - there's going to be things said - on message boards, in the papers - some of it true and some of it not. Firstly, I think there are unavoidably difficult, painful lessons to be learned from this - about the nature of addiction and about what a pervasive, cruel disease it can be. I have vacillated between incredible grief, guilt & anger all week long. It's something I don't fully understand yet, but I'm trying. Friend's have been incredibly comforting this week. Many thanks to all of you.

Just as important though, I hope that everyone continues to take time to learn more about each other's unique experiences and encounters with Joe Sell. These stories, over time, form a mosaic that illustrate and define a man's life once he's gone.

From what I've seen already this week, there are literally thousands of stories people have about Joe Sell - funny, crazy, sweet & bizarre stories- and together they form the narrative of a talented, gentle, flawed & beautiful young man.

A man that I'm only beginning to comprehend how much I'm going to miss.

A man who's loss has made the world a quieter, less-brilliant place.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Molly Malones - Venue Review

A suggestion for those looking for a great meal and Gaelic-inspired ambiance this holiday season- stop in to Molly Malone’s on a Thursday evening and experience their weekly “Irish Sessions.” While warming yourself within spitting distance of the crisp, stone fireplace, scan the authentic Irish pub’s tasteful holiday décor and warm, dark-wood interior. Perhaps order something from the extensive beer menu and dine on some authentic Irish cuisine (Shepherd’s Pie? Maybe some flank steak draped in blue cheese?). Just after eight o’clock, the loose ensemble of local musicians will take their places in the centerpiece of the room, violins and fiddles in hand.
Now you’re ready.
The self-proclaimed “Irish heart of Madison Ave,” Franklin Park’s Molly Malone’s manages to offer a tasteful, mannered take on the “authentic” Irish pub theme without the overwhelming characteristics (garish American-chain-restaurant décor, overwhelmingly loud music) that plague many a Chicagoland alehouse. The food is extremely satisfying (particularly when topped off with a mixed-berry sundae for a finale), the walls are mercifully devoid of twaddle and the ambience feels genuine and unforced.
A large part of that inspired atmosphere is the aforementioned “Irish Sessions,” a (seemingly) loose collection of local musicians that gather every Thursday evening at Molly Malone’s to serenade diners and drinkers alike in understated, yet resonant renditions of Irish standards. Seated in the full view of both the bar and restaurant, the “Irish Sessions” players sit facing one another in a half-circle, with an age-range of early teens well into adult-hood.
Aiding to the laid-back, relaxed ambience is the loose structure of the performance itself. There’s nary an introduction, the music (quite remarkably) does not interfere with dinner conversation and songs don’t really stop and start as much as they gently cascade throughout the entire establishment. It’s quite a joy, surprisingly even for those (such as this reviewer) who normally don’t care for Irish music. The instrumentation of violins, fiddles and acoustic guitars is a perfect serenade for a great meal and try as they might to give off the impression that this is a loosely organized affair, this seemingly rag-tag group of local musicians seem much more rehearsed than they may let on; a characteristic that only adds to their charm.
Luckily, the live music extends all the way from Thursday to Sunday nights, ranging from local groups to open mic nights. The kitchen is conveniently open from 3pm to 1am every night.
All in all, a holiday surprise to be sure, and one that likely continues throughout the rest of the year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Herbie Hancock Record Review

Freelance Piece
Review by Ryan Fergus
November 2007

Herbie Hancock had made a career of zig-zags and left turns- veering from a 60’s era Miles Davis sideman to excursions into funk, electro and even pop. On his latest, River: The Joni Letters (Verve), Hancock pays tribute to another legendary maverick. Dissecting the broad repertoire of Joni Mitchell (with the help of longtime Mitchell collaborator Larry Klein and a slew of guest vocalists), Hancock manages to stage dramatic reinterpretations that focus heavily on fleshing out the lyrical mood of each piece.
The surprises that flow through River are plentiful; Tina Turner sounds every bit as fierce as one would hope on “Edith and the Kingpin,” while Ms. Mitchell herself shows up for a subdued reworking of “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms).” Leonard Cohen’s gravelly grumble even turns up on “The Jungle Line,” turning Mitchell’s synthesized world beat into a spoken-word tone poem (resulting in perhaps the album’s sole misstep).
As the guests frequently come and go (including the requisite Norah Jones guest vocal), Hancock’s piano acts as an eloquent host to the proceedings, backed by a crack band including Wayne Shorter on both soprano and tenor sax, and the multi-dimensional session legend Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.
Make no mistake; the track selection here is varied. There is no “Big Yellow Taxi” to be found and only one cut off of Mitchell’s seminal 1971 masterpiece, Blue, made the cut (a soulful version of “River” featuring songbird-of-the-moment Corinne Bailey Rae).
That said, don’t be scared off by the unconventional palette Hancock has chosen to work from. He knows as well as anyone that Mitchell’s career has never been about hit singles, or genre-specific consistency. Instead, it’s been a journey of lyrical depth, varied emotion and a restless urge to consistently unearth new ground.
In other words, traits that Hancock himself is all too familiar with.

Memphis Jacks Profile

Local Business Profile
Insider Magazine
July 2007
By Ryan Fergus

Walking In Memphis
Tennessee Native Brings BBQ Expertise to Hillside

Barbeque lovers living in Chicagoland often have it rough. Not fortunate enough to live in the Barbeque “hot spots” of the country such as Kansas City, Austin, St. Louis or the Carolina’s, they’re often left with the watered-down, chain version of that sweet, tangy flavor that true barbeque fans savor. Luckily for those in the southwest suburbs, there is hope, and it’s located in a small strip mall in Hillside.
Memphis Jack’s, a true southern-style barbeque joint, opened its doors eleven months ago with the mission of bringing some of that mouth-watering flavor to Chicagoland. Owned and operated by Jack Adams III, the restaurant is a virtual recreation of the classic “joints” down South that are easy to miss, but almost always worth pulling off the interstate for.
The décor is spot on- Elvis posters plastered on the wall, B.B. King singin’ ‘bout his baby on the stereo and picnic-style benches for you and yours to sit while you tear apart a big rack of ribs, or a pulled pork sandwich (a Memphis Jack’s specialty). How about some free lemonade while you wait for your food? Done.
Sure, the furnishing is delicious in itself, but what about the food? According to Adams, a Memphis native who set-up a brief incarnation of Memphis Jack’s in Denver before coming to the Midwest, the truth is in the sauce.
“We make all our sauce in-house; it’s a secret recipe that I’ve been perfecting for over three years now.” The tantalizing topping adheres to the Memphis template of a half-tomato/half-vinegar-based blend (plus Adam’s secret spices of course). In addition, Memphis Jack’s applies an “everything fresh, everyday” policy to the whole menu, from the sauce, to the peach cobbler and even to the mac-n-cheese (the recipe of which coming from Adam’s own mother).
The result of all this hard work? BBQ heaven.

"Fracture" Film Review

“Fracture” Film Review
Published in Elmhurst Leader
March 2007
By Ryan Fergus

It’s hard not to be a bit wary walking into a new Gregory Hoblit film. The dubious filmmaker is best known for shlocky adult thrillers such as Hart’s War, Fallen and most famously, his 1996 courtroom thriller Primal Fear. With Fracture, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling, Hoblit doles out more of the same. Everything you’d expect is here, from dramatic courtroom face-offs, a laughably tacked-on love story and a twist at the end that aims to rival Ed Norton’s psychopathic reveal at the end of Primal Fear.
Gosling, fresh off his Oscar-nominated role is last year’s Half Nelson, plays Willy Beachum, a young hotshot D.A. who takes on one last case (isn’t it always?) at his old firm before moving on to greener pastures an attorney for the Mayor’s office. The case, involving an engineer (Hopkins) who purposefully kills his cheating wife, should be a slam-dunk. Naturally the plot thickens, and Hopkins, recalling the sinister scenery chewing of his most famous methodical maniac, positions himself (through a series of incomprehensibly coincidental events ) into a battle of wits against the young lawyer. This of course paves the way for tense confrontations in both the courtroom as well as the detention block, with Gosling managing to hold his own against Sir Anthony, who clearly seems to be relishing another chance to unspool cryptic clues from behind a jail cell and lock horns with a young and worthy adversary.
Unfortunately, any time these two aren’t battling it out head-to-head is when the movie falls apart. Hoblit inexplicably shoehorns a romantic subplot involving Beachum and his soon-to-be boss (played with a mock-carnality by relative new-comer Rosamund Pike) that is not only offensively unbelievable, but threatens to bring the movie to a screeching halt every time the two characters are on screen together. Only when Hopkins’s scorned husband ghoulishly returns to the frame does Fracture retain any sort of emotional resonance.
Although the film breaks no new ground, you can bet it will appeal to fans of the genre, as well as adults who want to go to the movies on a Friday night and see a familiar name on the marquee. While the ever-brilliant Hopkins seems to have found a comfortable niche in which to play out his twilight years as an actor, one hopes that with his newfound slingshot to the Hollywood A-list, Gosling doesn’t get too bogged down in mire like this. For a fat paycheck and chance to square off against Sir Anthony, we’ll let you slide kid. But we’re keeping an eye out.

Bloc Party Record Review

Bloc Party “A Weekend in the City”
Record Review
Appeared in the Elmhurst Leader
February 2007
By Ryan Fergus

The term “post-punk” has been tossed around pretty liberally within the rock community in the past five years or so, largely due to the commercial success of New York bands such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol. The genre’s mix of aggressive melodies, angular guitar riffs and danceable beats has had the music press touting it as the “next big sound” almost ad nauseam throughout the decade. One of the breakout superstar bands of this movement (think rock music that you can actually dance to) has been Bloc Party, who’s debut, Silent Alarm, arrived from England in 2005 with all the subtlety of an East London rugby match. The record showed a young band that was able to combine the isolation of post-modern indie-rock with the hyperactive rhythms of the U.K. club scene that they had been exposed to growing up. The resulting record made them one of the few groups within the genre that actually managed to live up to their hype, both critically and commercially.
The new record, A Weekend in the City (Vice Records), is the band’s attempt to expand on the “isolated urban living” theme of Silent Alarm, while managing to pull away from their competitors and imitators with a more mature sound (and judging from the production, a much bigger recording budget).
They very nearly pull it off.
Just as The Killers did late last year with Sam’s Town (their own overblown mess of a second record), A Weekend in the City attempts to compensate for a distinct decrease in catchy hooks with production tricks and layer-upon-layer of guitars, back-up vocal harmonies and random electronic bleeps and blips scattered throughout the disc. The songs here lack the more straightforward pop structures of Silent Alarm; yet soak newer tracks such as “The Prayer” in glossy, radio-ready production. So, while Weekend may not boast an obvious hit such as “Banquet” (the breakout single off of Silent Alarm), at the very least the new songs sounds absolutely massive blasting from a home stereo system.
On a more positive note, lead singer Kele Okereke’s lyrics seem to be of a more personal and vulnerable nature this time out. Amidst (perhaps not coincidentally) the pre-release publicity blitz for A Weekend in the City, Okereke vaguely dropped hints in several interviews all-but-confirming his bisexuality; in fact several of the songs on the record (“I Still Remember” and “Kreuzberg”) deal with the homosexual lifestyle. Recurring themes such as conformity and urban isolation still abound on tracks such as “Uniform” (“there was a sense of disappoint as we left the mall; all the young people looked the same”) and the shouted climax of the blistering opener, “Song For Clay (Disappear Here)” (“East London is a vampire; it sucks the joy right out of me”).
Ever the driving force of the group, Matt Tong’s drumming remains a revelation. His ability to mimic electronic drum ‘n’ bass beats, as well provide the jittery yet thundering rhythmic base of A Weekend in the City makes his contribution alone a reason to check out the record.
All in all Bloc Party has a crafted an ambitious second record that barely escapes the dreaded “sophomore slump” that so many young bands fall into. While short on the memorable hooks that made their debut such a success, A Weekend in the City’s rhythms, lyrics and overall mood make it worth checking out.