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Friday, June 28, 2013

Blackhawks hockey runs thickly through the Slowik bloodline

By Ted Slowik

I grew up in a hockey family. As the youngest of 12 (and the seventh boy) I would squeeze into hand-me-down skates and coats to spend cold Chicago winter nights on the ice rink Dad and my older brothers would build atop the backyard garden. I can still hear Christmas carols played on the bells at St. Cletus while skating figure eights in the darkness.

But I was not a hockey player. Maybe I had weak ankles, because skating hurt. I lacked coordination. Maybe it was mental. I'd never be as big or as good as my older brothers, so what was the point? I was destined to always come up short, to be the runt. Hockey was no sport for a little boy among much bigger boys.

I was 6 years old in 1971, when the Blackhawks blew a 2-0 lead at home in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals and lost to the Montreal Canadiens. This was back when the Blackhawks were on WGN-TV, Channel 9 in Chicago. I don't remember the games but I remember the commercials. There was one for Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet showing a new car slowly rotating on a stage in an ad for the new 1972 models.

"But it's still 1971," I remember protesting. "How can they be selling 1972 cars?"

We grew up in Countryside, and the city politicians or the union would throw a Christmas party for kids at the Operating Engineers Local 150 hall and raffle off gifts. One year I won a hockey stick. The moment I returned to my seat from the stage with prize in hand, my brother Frank convinced me to trade my stick for something else. I don't remember what it was. I remember Mom or Dad asking me if I was sure I wanted to trade, because it had the appearance of a one-sided deal and an opportunist taking advantage of the situation. That stick was too big for me anyways.

Besides, Frank still plays hockey every week. So does Bud. They're in their late 50s now, still subjecting themselves to abuse. Hurling their bodies into boards to finish checks. Turning on the jets, hoping for breakaways. A little one-on-one action. They'll never admit they're old. They'll skate until they die.

As I got older they were great about including me, the tag-along little brother. Bud and Liz and their friends would take me to rat hockey games at the Willow Ice Chalet in Willow Springs. They'd sneak in beers and I'm sure all kinds of other stuff. Bud's a Blackhawks season ticket holder and takes me to a game every year for my birthday.

Frank's a great sport, too. He let me listen to his albums whenever I wanted and make tapes of the songs I liked, which meant I could hang out in his room. He put up with all that and still organizes our annual family outings to a Cubs game in the summer and a Buddy Guy concert in January.

Nick with the 2013 Stanley Cup
But it's Lizzy who is the most hockey-indulged member of the family. Her boys, Nick and Chris, skated as kids and Lizzy's license plate to this day is HOCKY MA. Nick worked for the Phoenix Coyotes for years but when that franchise got so fucked up that the league had to take it over he moved back to Chicago, where he found work as a Zamboni driver. Chris played for Weber State but got injured and now totes a shovel with the Ice Girls between periods at the United Center, scooping up ice shavings and the occasional octopus when the Redwings are in town.

Lizzy's husband, Steve Ruck, is an NHL official. He's in charge of the clock at the United Center during Hawks games. You see him on TV all the time. Steve's dad was a scorer before him, and his grandfather before him. Hockey runs through bloodlines more than any other sport.

So there's hockey blood in my family, and I cheered the Chicago Blackhawks to their Stanley Cup Championship during this bizarre strike-shortened 2013 season. Championships in this town are rare, and this one feels especially sweet. Congratulations, Blackhawks.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

It's the end of journalism as we know it

Brian Powers
By Ted Slowik
I've worked with many talented people through the years, including some of the 28 photographers fired by the Chicago Sun-Times on May 30. When I saw that CNN hired former colleague Brian Powers to photograph portraits for a piece about the layoffs, I knew it was time to break my silence about my former employer.

I worked in various capacities for the Sun-Times for 10 years, from March 1998 to November 2008. I worked in a cramped office on Jackson Street in downtown Naperville, at the Fox Valley Press in Plainfield, at The Joliet Herald News office on Caterpillar Drive, at The Sun's roomy digs on Ogden Avenue and at the rented offices on Commons Drive in Aurora.

None of those places exists as a newspaper office anymore.

When I came to The Naperville Sun in 1998 as a reporter, it was part of The Copley Press, a family-run business that had acquired The Sun from Harold and Eva White, who had bought it in 1936 from Harold Moser, who founded the paper as a weekly a year earlier. In the early 2000s Copley sold its papers in Naperville, Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, Waukegan and elsewhere to Hollinger, an international company headed by Lord Conrad Black, who also owned prestigious papers like the Jerusalem Post, The Daily Telegraph in the U.K. and Canada's National Post.

Hollinger acquired more Chicago-area papers, like the Daily Southtown, the Gary Post-Tribune and the Pioneer Press group of papers. Black and others would later be convicted of looting the company by skimming hefty fees from these transactions and eventually serve time in prison. Meanwhile, Hollinger divested itself of all but its Chicago-area papers and the company tried on a series of names including Sun-Times News Group and Sun-Times Media Group.

At one time the company published more than 100 newspapers, employing hundreds of people in offices throughout the Chicago area. Now there is only one office, in Chicago. The company no longer owns a press; it contracts with the Chicago Tribune to print and deliver its papers.

Scott Strazzante
I worked with some greats. In Joliet, I used to go on assignments with Scott Strazzante, who won the National Newspaper Photographer of the Year Award in 2000, the Illinois Photographer of the Year Award nine times and shared credit for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

In Joliet I worked with Joe Hosey, who investigated the disappearance of Stacy Peterson and wrote the book about convicted murderer Drew Peterson upon which the Lifetime movie was based. Also in Joliet I worked with James Smith, who ended up designing front pages for the Sun-Times. James appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" after Barack Obama's historic presidential win in 2008, and Oprah gushed about James' covers.

In Naperville our front-page designer was Robb Montgomery, who now travels across Europe and Russia teaching Radio Free Europe reporters how to use smart phones, according to his CNN bio. And I've worked with dozens more incredibly talented writers, photographers, editors and designers, like Paul LaTour, Wendy Fox Weber, Bill Wimbiscus, Susie Carlman, Steve Buyansky, Brad Nolan, Jim Owczarski--there are just too many to possibly name but I admire and respect the work of all. (Please forgive me, friends for not mentioning you--it's a dangerous business when you start naming names.)

It must be difficult for craftsmen like Pulitzer Prize-winner John White and the other former Sun-Times photographers to comprehend the elimination of their positions. Maybe some of the shock has worn off in the month since the firings, and maybe some of them feel slightly less lost. But we, collectively, are witnessing the slow death of the art form known as journalism.

Oh, schools can still teach aspiring journalists how to write clearly and concisely, and how to tell stories through photographs, video, graphics and other visual devices. And there'll be old-timers like me around for a generation to tell what it was like in the day when youngsters riding bicycles tossed evening newspapers onto doorsteps.

But gone forever are the smoke-filled, noisy newsrooms glorified in a film like "The Front Page." A reporter working like a lone wolf in the field has no sense of camaraderie with editors. There are no peers around to bounce ideas off of. ("Hey, what do you think of this sentence?") There are no others in desks around you to debate politics, or argue about coaches and players, or relate stories about off-the-record encounters.

As a craft, journalism is changed forever. As a friend in printing says, it's gone the way of the buggy whip.

I blame stupid management and ownership. For decades owning a newspaper was a license to print money. When the Internet revolutionized the news industry the top brass were too dumb to see the business model breaking down. No one grasped how Craigslist would make reliable revenue from classified advertising quickly evaporate. Then came the crash in 2008, and revenue from real estate and other display advertising dried up overnight. As managing editor of a daily newspaper at the start of 2008 I supervised 50 people. When I left that November only 10 of those positions remained.

To this day newspapers cling to an expensive, environmentally unfriendly 19th-century distribution model that involves printing words and images on paper that requires paying people to truck copies around neighborhoods in the wee hours of the day.

Print is threatened, and not just newspapers. Have you seen how thin a Sports Illustrated is these days, and other magazines, those that still exist in print form? And what about mail delivery--how long can the Post Office lose billions a year delivering information--and mostly junk--that could be distributed electronically for practically no cost?

And these rapid changes and bygone ways of life are not limited to journalism. Audiences for television shows are rapidly shrinking as consumers increasingly watch shows on demand on mobile devices. The model for content is rapidly changing as Internet-based channels develop original shows.

We've seen how the Internet upended the music business and book publishing, and now it appears the Hollywood business model is on the brink of collapse. The times they are a' changin', friends. Who knows what it will look like when the dust settles.

Hopefully there will always be a need for good storytellers.

CNN photo of Brian Powers by Andrew Nelles.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Are artists closer to the truth, or just faking it?

By Ted Slowik

"Art is short for artificial."

These words spoken by legendary singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell in a new interview with Canadian Broadcast Corporation's Jian Ghomeshi prompted my wife to exclaim "Bullshit!" from across the room.

Joni was explaining how music is the most intimate of art forms. "The trick is, if you listen to that music and you see me, you're not getting anything out of it," she says at 43:05 into the 100-minute interview. "If you listen to that music and you see yourself it'll probably make you cry and you'll learn something about yourself, and now you're getting something out of it."

"At the point they see themselves in it the communication is complete."

She goes on to compare the performance of one's own songs to an actor performing the work of a playwright. At 1:00:50, she talks about method acting.

"Method acting is being you. It's drawing upon all your sense memory and everything. Method acting is very real. But of course it's art, and art is short for artificial. So the art of art is to be as real as you can within this artificial situation."

Great artists emphasize with their subjects, Joni goes on to say.

"van Gogh's paintings are exaggerated to make the emotional experience of these landscapes real for the deadened, you know. It's not really that blue of a sky, and the stars aren't really that big, but you're not seeing them so he's gonna blow 'em up. So in way it's a lie to get you to see the truth."

As a writer and aspiring musician I related to a lot of what Joni had to say about the process of making art, and if you can find the time I encourage you to watch the whole interview. My wife, who is an actress, director, theatre manager and professor, took issue however with Joni's choice of words that "art is short for artificial."

What do you think? How do you tell the difference between great, real art and a pile of bullshit?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Musician/songwriter Lewis Knudsen has a gift for storytelling

One of the most fun and rewarding aspects of writing and making music is developing an appreciation for music composed, performed and recorded by others.

A writer friend Emily Miller turned me on to the music of Lewis Knudsen, a versatile multi-instrumentalist based in the Quad Cities area. Even though I'm new to Lewis' music, I can tell right away he's a very talented singer, songwriter and musician. You can stream his original music on his website,, and you can also check out his video demos on his YouTube channel.

Lewis' gift for storytelling shows on a track like "The Story of St. Patrick," an expertly told tale of Ireland's patron saint. The quality of Lewis' recordings is excellent, and his choices of accompaniment are varied and interesting and include acoustic guitar, piano, mandolin and other instruments.

Lewis clearly possesses a passion and gift for making music. His style is original and his sounds are pleasant, with hints of influences ranging from Bob Dylan to Etta James. He has a sweet voice and clear tone, and his music can warm the heart and touch the soul in a way like a walk in the woods can help you reconnect with nature and appreciate the beauty in the world.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Performing "Ballad of Slowiks" at a family reunion is a trip

This Father's Day weekend my family had a reunion. Since I'm the youngest of 12, reunions are major productions, so I was very glad when our sister Liz asked if I'd perform the song I wrote about the family.

I wrote "Ballad of Slowiks" back in 1994 and it always gets a good reaction when I perform it. Like so much else I do musically it's evolved over time, and the musical evolution has accelerated since I began performing solo about two years ago.

I've come a long way as a performer since 2011. Prior to then I almost always performed in band, as bassist. A couple years ago when I started playing my songs on acoustic guitar in front of people I would have major butterflies before performing. Now I'm able to get up in front of family--the toughest audience there is in my
opinion--and perform without forgetting words, messing up the instrumentation or being too emotionally vested in the subject matter to perform well. You've got to be relaxed enough to get the timing right and appreciate the humor in a song like "Ballad of Slowiks."

So the performance was fine and I had great fun providing the evening's entertainment. Our daughter Hannah was kind enough to film the performance and did a great job--I'm very proud of her artistic abilities. The family gave a great ovation. The link above is to the video of the performance. I hope you check it out.

As I follow-up to the most recent post, I've decided to set the guitar aside for a bit, and not practice for a couple weeks. I'm trying to give the index finger on my left hand a chance to heal. It's had an open sore for four months or so, and maybe constant guitar playing is preventing it from healing. I might still do the Wednesday night open mic at Tribes Mokena but nothing more, and even then I might take off a week or two. So I may not be posting quite as frequently, as I may not be out having as many musical adventures to write about :)

Cheers until next time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How much pain would you endure for your passion?

Hi folks. Readers of this blog will know from previous posts that I've been contending with a nagging wound on my left index finger for some time now, four months or so. It just won't seem to heal.

I'm getting excellent care from a great doctor (a hand specialist/surgeon who fixed my broken left thumb some years ago). I've followed his orders and haven't smoked a cigarette since April 25. The circulation has improved but still this fingertip wound won't heal.

It's very painful and hindering the progress of one trying to master a stringed instrument like the guitar. I'm right-handed, so I form chords and finger the fretboard with my left hand. The index finger is fairly important in that effort.

Blood tests have shown it's not diabetes, so that's good news. The finger's not cold like it was, but as
you can see the tip's not normal either. And it's not like a Band-Aid will help. I think letting air get at it allows what little healing is happening to take place. Besides, any sort of bandage or wrap interferes with the normal feel of learning to play guitar.

What to do?

I'm surmising that continuous guitar practicing is hindering the healing effort. Instead of a callous forming, which is what's normally happened my whole life (after blistering at times), I believe the constant contact of exposed flesh on steel strings is prolonging the injury.

Lately I've been trying to practice without using the finger. During performances I can't help it--I need to use that finger to play well. But are my efforts to perform well and practice regularly actually hurting my chances of becoming a better musician?

I'm wondering, should I just take a break completely from performing and practicing for a while--a week or two, or maybe more--and see what that does? Maybe that will allow the wound to heal properly and a callous to form like normal.

String musicians, what do you think? Have any of you ever experienced anything like this, and would you/could you give up playing the instruments you love for a couple weeks or a month to allow healing to occur?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jamming outdoors at a summer party is great fun

By Ted Slowik

There's nothing quite as fun as getting together with friends and other musicians at an outdoor party in the summertime. On Saturday my friend Peggy graduated from North Central College, threw a party to celebrate and wanted live music. The dude abides.

Ron and I packed the van with gear, including drums, bass and guitar amps, PA and speakers and guitars. We figured we could do a few numbers with acoustic guitar but were counting on other musicians sitting in, and we weren't disappointed.

Peggy's son Jake played guitar with us on some Black Keys songs we'd never played before and it sounded great. He also played some Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and other tunes. His friend Matt, 15, sat in on bass and impressed everyone. He's a fantastic player--for any age--and when he said typically he spends his Saturdays practicing for about six hours I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Some others played too, like Dan on guitar. Peggy's husband Dave played and sang "Stormy Monday" and some other blues at the end of the night. Their place is in the suburbs but has a real country feel to it, with horses and other animals. To top off everything the Blackhawks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals with a win, so it was a great ending to a great day.

It's always great jamming with Ron, and meeting new friends and musicians and having fun playing an outdoor party in the summertime. I think everybody had a great time.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Something for everyone who likes live music in Will County

By Ted Slowik

Just had a great night out hearing live music at two different venues: the River Club in Joliet and Tribes Alehouse in Mokena.

Blues Hall of Fame inductee T-Bird Huck jammed at the River Club in the shadow of I-80 along Railroad Street. It's right on the Des Plaines River, and tonight was the first time I heard live music outside on their deck.

T-Bird made a special appearance cohosting the weekly electric blues jam run by guitarist Billy Osman. Lots of players were there, like Captain Michael Brown, Tom Kallai, Tim Romanowski, Tom Slaboszewski and many more. It's a great sound outdoors, and many talented musicians join in, including several horn players, which is very cool.

From there it was off to Tribes for the weekly acoustic open mic singer/songwriter showcase hosted by John Condron. A great turnout as usual with the likes of Scott McNeil, Charlie Champene, Patrick Spiroff, Ryan Olsson, Bill Ryan, Greg Woods, John Narcissi and more. Patrick just finished a great recording of originals called "First the B Sides." Tonight he brought along a bassist friend, Charlie Graham, who sat in with a really great Rickenbacker while I played three originals.

I opened with "Springfield," followed by "Red Rover" and "Ballad of Slowiks," which I'll play at a family reunion next week. Got a great reception and had a great time. Thanks Charlie for sitting in!

That's all for now. Cheers until next time :)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A most fun time hanging out with great musician friends

By Ted Slowik

Just had a great couple days hanging out at Chicago Street Pub in Joliet hearing great music amid great company.

On Sunday, John Condron and the Old Gang Orchestra opened for Cutthroat Shamrock. The Pub's usually closed on Sundays but Triz opened special for the occasion. It was well worth it as there was a great turnout for a very special show.

Cutthroat Shamrock plays "Appalachian Punk Rock." They're currently on a 24-show, monthlong tour through Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and back to Tennessee. That's a lot of shows in a short amount of time with a lot of travel in between. It takes some serious dedication to live music to commit to a tour like that!

Speaking of road warriors, I just started reading the book "Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll" by Joe Oestreich. Joe teaches creative writing at a college, and plays bass and sings in a band called Watershed. In his book he recounts decades of performing, writing and recording music, and getting close but not quite making it. It's a good read so far.

John's opening set was highly energetic. The Old Gang Orchestra featured Tom Maslowski on upright bass, Doneco Nudi on drums and Pat Otto on mandolin. The band was great! I felt bad for Tom because the pickup on the upright crapped out right before the show. I brought one he could use (because, you know, in a previous life I used to be a bass player) but couldn't get there in time. There was some feedback, which goes to show how many variables affect a live performance and how every little thing has to align just right to have a perfect show.

Monday night I was back at Chicago Street for the Songwriter Circle hosted by Alex Hoffer. It was a small turnout so we got to spend some time playing originals for each other, plus some covers for people in the bar. Alex is a fantastic guitarist and vocalist and a superb songwriter. I'm more of a writer trying to become a good enough musician so that people will listen to my songs without fleeing the room. That's the thing about songwriting, for me anyway. To get your songs heard, you have to perform them. We are talking about music, after all.

And while I've always been confident my writing is strong and original and I have something to say, it's apparent I need more practice to become a better musician (my vocals are decent enough). I've been at it for nearly two years now--practicing guitar regularly for a couple hours a day, that is--and I can tell I'm making good progress. I'm not there yet, though. Not long ago a read a biography of Muddy Waters, and it talked about how his son Big Bill Morganfield spent about six years practicing intensely on his own before he felt ready to play out. He called it woodshedding, and it's what I need to do. I'm not concerned about getting gigs right now because I've got a lot more practicing to do to become the musician I want to be.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The most important part of guitar playing is tone

Hey there! Just a quick shout out to friend Bill Ryan today for something great and profound I read on his blog. Bill makes the point that tone is of the utmost importance to guitarists:

"It doesn’t matter how accurate, fast, or impressive your playing is," Bill says. "If you fall short of good tone, you will fall short of success. Whether I’m playing on my classical, steel string, electric through a clean channel, or electric through multiple effects, tone is always my first and foremost concern"

Amen, brother.

Bill's a regular at John Condron's Wednesday acoustic open mic at Tribes Alehouse Mokena. He plays guitar in a band, Time and the New Romans, with Greg Woods. They have a nice song called "Your Eyes" and a new one called "In Frantic Sound" from a release coming out soon.