February 4th, 2021

In Space, No One Can Hear You Dance or Seeing the Clash at the Aragon Ballroom

Look at the second photo in this article. On the other side of the red fire department vehicle is an alley running between the Aragon Ballroom and the elevated railway tracks. On Aug 13, 1982, Mike Helm, Patrick Slater and I got in line at about 10am and sat down against the wall beneath that fire escape and waited for the doors to open in the evening so we could see the Clash perform on their Combat Rock tour. Graffiti on the wall provided the first of many dramatic and thematic touchstones for the day. It read, “UFO AIN'T SHIT WITHOUT SCHENKER!”

There were maybe only six people in line in front of us so we ended up front and center at the stage. Those kids (I think they'd all come together) had a boom box and treated the growing crowd to the band's entire catalog, continuously repeated until showtime. Immediately after we sat down in line, a couple of guys got in line behind us, lit a joint and passed it our way. It was a glorious day in the company of strangers who became fast friends gathered around our obvious common interest (and the only one that mattered, as it were.)

Mike, Pat and I were living in Cincinnati at the time, but Chicago was the closest the Clash would come to us on their tour. A huge fan, I immediately bought as many tickets as I could afford, as a bunch of my friends wanted to go. To use a football metaphor, I way outkicked my coverage on that one (a story unto itself.) As a result, I had 10 extra tickets and spent part of the day running off to try to hustle as many as I could sell (which was exactly none.)

We'd driven to Chicago the previous day – a trip that took better than twice as long as it should have (another story unto itself – let's just say that another touchstone of the experience was “Where in the hell is Lake Bluff?”) We had nowhere to go when the concert ended. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For those in the know, this was after Topper Headon had been sacked and before Mick Jones was. As I understand it, the Clash always opened their show with “London Calling,” and that's what they did this night (oh yeah, and on top of everything else, it was Friday the 13th.) When they'd come out on stage, it was apparent that Jones and Joe Strummer had just had a king-hell argument in the green room. But anger played into their wheelhouse as performers and the show was great.

When it was over, it took forever to empty the place out. (And bear in mind, we were among the first in and, therefore, among the last out.) With the possible exception of a pickup basketball game years later in 100+ heat, I've never been so hot in my life as I was that night, slowly trundling out of the Aragon, all of us sweating profusely. It was the height of summer, so even in the evening, it had to be in the upper eighties. But it felt like heaven on earth when we finally hit fresh air.

After the show, and 300 miles from home with no place to go, we lazily threw frisbee for an hour or more as we let the parking garage clear out. Not that that really mattered because, as I said, we weren't going anywhere, anyway. We got pancakes at an all night diner and spent the rest of the night til dawn either walking along Lake Michigan or around the very sketchy neighborhood in the environs of the Aragon. We wouldn't realize until afterward just how dangerous a place this was at that hour for three white kids from the suburbs.

There's much more to the story but I'll just add this. My mom was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, so for me, this was sort of a coming home. Mike and Pat would head back to Cincinnati without me (10 extra tickets and two cars for three guys – efficiency was not our strong suit.) It was the summer after high school graduation and my first time away from home without my parents. I'd decided to make a vacation out of it. I'd see my aunt and uncle in the Chicago burbs, then visit my grandfather on his farm in Iowa. I'm a city mouse/country mouse kid, if you haven't already noticed. And tying a bow on (at least part of) this experience, when they were dating in the late 50s, my farm kid dad and Italian-Catholic mom had danced to big band music at the Aragon. So yeah,it was sorta like coming home.