Story #2: Showdown at Michigan and Madison
Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio had been singing doo-wop on this corner long enough to know a challenge when he saw one, and if these four teenagers in matching red and white Air Jordan high tops, black leather pants, and naval pea coats weren’t a challenge, he’d eat the dapper chapeau sitting atop his very head.
As anyone in the game will tell you, life in a streetcorner doo-wop group is nothing but an endless series of challenges. As bass in the Dapper Chapeaus, Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio had seen them come and go here at Michigan and Madison—so many street performers trying to take this corner they’ve performed at for over 30 years. Jugglers tossing bowling pins while pedaling unicycles, floppity-footed clowns armed with seltzer bottles and cream pies, saxophone players always playing either “Tequila” by The Champs or “Careless Whispers” by Wham, and so many boxed-in mimes. Those damn mimes.
The closest anybody got to taking over this valued piece of street performer real estate were the drummer kids with their drywall buckets. Oh, there was that funny funny improv troupe, Nutz n’ Boltz, from Funnyville Station’s Bensenville location. They took suggestions from the pedestrians for commonly found household items and made uncommonly funny scenes of hilarity. They were good. But not even the madcap comedy of Nutz n’ Boltz could outmatch the vocal gymnastics of Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio on bass (who wore a beanie on his head which hilariously contrasted his stocky build), Tommy-Boy Macadamia on alto (who wore a leopard skin pillbox hat on his head in honor of the Bob Dylan song, Tommy-Boy’s star-turn in the Chapeau’s weeknight or weekend afternoon sets), “Skinny” Ty Yahtzini on tenor (who wore a purple crushed velvet top-hat), and the man with the shrieking Nedesque soprano, Frank “The Fez” Fezzazewski, who could hit the high note to “Large Girls Don’t Lie,” remove the fez atop his head with an elegant spin of the right wrist and collect your money so fast, your head would spin in a sea of Dip Dip Dip Dip Doo and Rama Lamma Cha-Ching.
Yes, gentle reader, the Dapper Chapeaus were an unstoppable force, and their reign over the southwest corner of Michigan and Madison was a sight to behold. Especially in recent years, as “Flaming Newark,” the musical about The Dapper Chapeaus’ idols, Kennnedy-era doo-wop legends New Jersey Ned and the Four Flamers, was a smash hit both on and off-Broadway. It only took the Dapper Chapeaus one verse of the Flamers’ classic “Large Girls Don’t Lie” to fill Frank Fezzazewski’s fez to overflowing with the bills from the change purses of delighted Moms descending on the Magnificent Mile from Chicagoland’s hinterlands to do a little shopping.
But the Dap Chap’s didn’t stop with early 60’s standards. Manhattan Transfer? Check. Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time?” Check. They had 500 songs in their repertoire, ready at a moment’s request from a passerby on that large Michigan Avenue sidewalk. Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio especially loved performing their doo-wop version of “Everybody Dance Now” by C&C Music Factory. He loved providing the rhythm, how he started it off, joined one at a time by Tommy-Boy, then Skinny Ty, and then Frank would wail “Everybody Dance Now!” and kids and adults were delighted. Yes, from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” to Celine Dion’s “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” from the Jonas Brothers’ “Pizza Girl,” to Prince’s “Sister,”—The Dapper Chapeaus ruled Michigan and Madison with a sweet blue-eyed soulfist. Passersby were charmed, the money was good, times were great.
But the competition was always there at Christmastime. Lurking. Michigan and Madison was a lucrative corner, and even if every street performer from Walton in the North, to Roosevelt in the South, and every el stop below the loop knew the Dapper Chapeau’s ran it, there were always youngsters who ignored all warnings, who heeded no advice, who through pluck, determination, drive, and good ol’ fashioned derring-do, believed the end of the Dapper Chapeau’s rule was nigh, and it was time for the young generation to take over and finally dispense with all this dippity dippity doo woo woo hokum.
Such is the audacity of teenagers, generally speaking. Too many writers give teenagers too much credit. Their girls are Juno, their boys are Holden, and all their protagonists have the dilettantish musical tastes of 40 year old rock critics. They have more eccentricities than an English Lord, serve as treasurers in their high school’s “I Heart the Little Dipper Constellation Club,” and pull off the genetic miracle of being thrice as smart as their bumbling heartless corny parents. Throw in enough eminently quotable witticisms to make Oscar Wilde look like that mumbling stoner kid in shop class with the Led Zeppelin runes drawn all over his folder, girlfriends with the bodies of playboy bunnies hidden under all that emasculating indie-rock fashion, and a couple two-three pop culture references to overcome all glaring weaknesses towards even remotely getting teenagers right, and congratulations—you’re a most foremost chronicler of the storm und drang of adolescence.
Let’s leave it at this: Adolescence is a mixed-up faraway country you get to live in for five years or so, ruled by Algebra II teachers, pimples, parents, bleacher creatures, nagging self-doubt and fast food managers, and once you leave the country, you never get to go back—not that you’d necessarily want to, but who knows–and your later impressions are never accurate. To give teenagers more drama, more twenty or even thirty-something neuroses, and more condescension through the humor of making light of their problems, is both an insult to kids and to the rest of us.
Not that Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio was thinking any of this as he held down the bass on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” observing said teenagers in matching red and white Air Jordans, black leather pants, and naval peacoats. No, Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio’s only thought was “Who’re these buncha punks?”
“Beat It” ended. Fez removed the cash from his fez, started counting the bills, when one of the kids approached. “Hey, Mister,” he said, in an undeniable bass.
“Yeah?” Fez said, sopranically. “Whaddaya want?”
“We would like to sing, sir.”
“Oh yeah? Well this is our corner.” Skinny Ty said, like a true tenor. “You wanna sing, you gotta challenge us and win.”
The soprano teen stepped up. “Well then. I guess this is a challenge.”
The Dapper Chapeaus “ooooooed” and “Whoooooooooaaaaaed.”
“You’re on, kids.” Fez said, and he shook on it with the teen soprano. “One song each, whoever gets the most money wins.”
The Dapper Chapeaus shuffled aside. Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio watched these teenagers bumble together on Michigan and Madison, the way they effortlessly, thoughtlessly bounced around each other, gawky and goofy yet so full of life, of energy. The teenage bass’s brain says “give the soprano a noogie,” and BAM! The soprano’s headlocked in the bass’s arms, hands a’ noogying. Frenetic and unchanneled, focused and intent, confused but never more convinced of who they want to be, Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio saw these kids and he saw himself, but he also saw the chasm separating himself from these kids. All these years on this corner. Doo-wopping. It was a good life. But now, he felt his life was about to change, the way life always changes.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen!” the teenage soprano announced. “We’re Sal and the Troubadours of Love, and we’d like to perform for you beautiful pedestrians on this lovely evening.”
Deep breaths. A beautiful elongated “ooooo” from the bass, alto, and tenor. It stopped people in their harried tracks up and down the Michigan Avenue sidewalk. Busses and taxis stopped. Streets and sanitation workers were struck soft-spoken by what they heard. A few blocks away at his desk in City Hall, the Mayor shed a tear, and he knew not why. It was a beautiful sound, and Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio could not deny it. And the song, so achingly familiar. The soprano opened his mouth, and all of God’s goddamned angels flew out:
“Let’s dance in style/let’s dance for awhile/heaven can wait/we’re only watching the skies/hoping for the best but expecting the worst/are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”
Alphaville. These little punks were doo-wopping Alphaville. The Dapper Chapeaus had this in their repertoire, but it was never like this. They didn’t think kids went for this stuff anymore. Bu t now, Fats stood there, flabbergasted. Yes, flabbergasted! Was their time here done? And the plea, the question from the soprano as he continued sounded like all the thoughts crossing Fats’s mind as pedestrians opened their hearts and their change purses, that high voice:
“Forever young, I want to be forever young. Do you really want to live forever? Forever, or never?”
Forever, or never, Larry “Fats” D’Annunzio. How do you answer that? How do you top this? How do you outperform youth, when they have all the breaks except experience.
Yes. Experience. If there’s one thing the Dapper Chapeaus knew how to do, it was to size up a crowd on a sidewalk. If they were feeling stressed, or excitable, drunk or sobered, in a rush, or willing to stand there and listen.
“What do we do, guys?” Tommy-Boy asked, scratching his leopard skin pillbox hat as “Forever Young” ended and the applause refused to die. “Looks like our goose is coo-coo-coo-coo-cooked.”
“I’m going to bequeath this corner to Sal,” Fez said. “It’s been a good run, and—“
“Not so fast!” Fats said. “We got a song. We can do this. I have an idea.”
Fats raised his hands and shouted, “Hey everybody! Weren’t Sal and the Troubadours of Love something great? Huh? Yeah! Well, we’re great too, so here’s something you’re bound to enjoy even more, from your friends, the Dapper Chapeaus.”
The crowd was silent again. The other Chapeaus looked at Fats, but Fats knew, and he smiled, and when he burst into,
“Well a everybody’s heard, about the bird…bird bird bird bird is the word,”
…it was another audience eruption. The silent buses and taxis now emptied out and people danced. Pedestrians threw their belongings in the air and danced. The Mayor got on his table and danced, and he knew not why. Skinny Ty and Tommy Boy and Fez had it—in the pocket–as they say in the business of streetcorner doo-wop, and when Fez sang, “Surfin’ birrrrrrrrrd,” followed by the insane onomonopeia towards the end of The Trashmen’s classic song, Fats knew it was his time to step up like a wise older man and say, PA PA PA PA PA PA PA PA PA PA PA OOO MOW MOW PA PA OOO MOW M-MOW, and hold on to this world, to this tiny busy corner of the world, for just a little bit longer.