I’ve had my eardrums blown out any number of times at the Aragon Ballroom. The old, cavernous live music venue on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood was the site of more Ramones and Iggy Pop shows that I attended throughout the years than I can remember.
In fact, I recall one such show w/ Iggy as the headliner and the Ramones as the openers on a fall Saturday night sometime in the late ’70s. Sandwiched between the acts was the old hard rock guitarist Leslie West. He’d played with Mountain, who’d appeared on the Woodstock stage the second day of that historic cultural touchstone. Hardly ten years after the definitive love/rock gathering of humanity in the mud of upstate New York, West and others like him would be considered old men, dinosaurs of a bygone era in rock. West at the time of the Aragon show was, shall we say, corpulent, putting him at esthetic odds with the gaunt kids who dug punks like Iggy and Joey Ramone. The combined weight of those two wouldn’t equal one of Leslie West’s thighs and the crowd surely let him know it. I could make out shouts of “fat pig” and “fat asshole,” discernible over the earsplitting booing and hissing as he played. Punks, it should be said, were not Gandhian nor were they particular astute. Whoever’d put the show’s card together should have been fired posthaste. It was like pairing Kelly Clarkson with Tierra Whack today.
The saddest moment of the entire evening came when, lo and behold, it was announced in the middle of West’s set that it was his birthday. A big cake with scads of lit candles was wheeled out onstage. The booing and catcalling only increased. A bottle, then another and, ultimately, a shower of them came flying in ballistic arcs from the crowd. West and his bandmates beat a hasty retreat, cutting their set short. It would be the last time I ever took in a show at the Aragon, even though I’d stayed through to the end and watched as Iggy climbed an amp tower and beseeched the crowd to dare him to leap off it into their arms. Iggy always put on a fun show and I’d be willing to bet he was appalled that a fellow touring pro had been treated so rudely by the audience.
My first ever show at the Aragon was for a southern rock band called Black Oak Arkansas, whom I’d seen at a 1972 Labor Day weekend rock fest, familiarly known as Bull Island, on the Wabash River. To this day I can’t adequately explain why I went to the Black Oak show at the Aragon, considering I pretty much loathe the band’s sound. Perhaps it was because I’d wanted to re-visit the groove I felt the first time I’d heard them, seeing as how I was tripping my ass off on some type of acid or another at that time. The Black Oak/Aragon show was in 1973 and I recall my ears ringing — nay, screaming for the next three or four days. The Aragon’s sound quality was notoriously bad. Chicago Reader rock critic Bill Wyman described the Aragon sound in a January 1991 piece as “legendarily weird.”
Wyman went on to write: “The domed roof and the balcony running around the sides and back of the hall take bass notes and turn them into a reverberating rumble. The simple expedient of turning the bass down, people familiar with the hall’s acoustics say, clears things up considerably — but this tends to fly in the face of the prejudices of sound people….”
That “reverberating rumble” was a signature of every show I’d ever seen at the Aragon. By the time I went to see Iggy and the Ramones with Leslie West in the late ’70s, I’d grown wary and weary of attending shows there. My ears would shriek and my head would pound continuously in the aftermath. I knew every show I’d heard there was pushing me thismuch closer to deafness when I’d hit the age of, say, 55.
As I said, the abominable treatment the crowd gave Leslie West pushed me over the edge and I never went back to the place.
Nevertheless, the Aragon holds a special place in my heart, a precious memory of my 50 years in my beloved hometown. It was right around the corner from the massive Uptown Theater, where I once saw Brian Ferry, and the old Al Capone hangout, The Green Mill, where, one night on a first date while a jazz band did a set, I did ten quick pushups next to the bar just to impress the girl I was with. Impress her I did; we went on to wage an intense, passionate three month affair that, when it was thankfully terminated, left us both mentally and emotionally exhausted. All around the Lawrence and Broadway intersection were little 24-hour taquerias and supermarket-sized Chinese restaurants, all of them fabulous and all patronized by an endless parade of people of every race, color, and sartorial preference, drag queens, gangbangers, pinky-ring-wearing hoodlums, cops, and sax-toting buskers. It was the kind of scene I miss dearly now that I live in South Central Indiana, although I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel back there now that I can’t throw thumbs* as readily and capably as I once could.
[ * Back when I was a teenaged thorn in society’s side, “throwing thumbs” meant fistfighting. I learn today, it means liking too many things on Facebook. Slang, natch, like formal language itself, is a fluid thing.]
Anyway, I bring up these recollections of the old Aragon Ballroom because I read this morning that the place has sold naming rights to an operation called Byline Bank. I’d never heard of Byline Bank before which, I suppose, is as good a reason as any for it to plaster its name over things. You’d think a byline bank would be a newspaper typesetter’s convenience so he wouldn’t have to spell out, say, Martha Gellhorn‘s name from scratch every time she filed a story.
Byline Bank, it turns out, is a regional financial institution with some 50 full-service locations in the Chicago and Milwaukee markets. Like most banks, it’s been bought and sold more times than a 1995 Toyota Corolla and it’s only gone under the name Byline since 2015.
Now, the old Aragon will be referred to in advertisements and news stories as the Byline Bank Aragon Ballroom. The only good thing about it is they’re keeping the Aragon Ballroom part of the appellation.
I detest the promiscuous naming of things after corporations. I realize that’s the way of the world these days and resisting it is akin to trying to stop the waves of the ocean. Chicago, for instance, is home of Guaranteed Rate Field, the White Sox ballpark, and quite possibly the most hideously monikered playing filed in this holy land. Then again, there are the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland; the StubHub Center outside LA; the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville; Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi, Texas; and Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina, named not after the legendary movie tap dancer but the Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits chain of LDL pushers in the southeastern United States.
Corps. over the decades have paid billions of dollars for the privilege of pasting their names over stadia, buildings, bridges, theaters, performance venues, rapid transit stations and even, if you can believe it, a section of the Antarctic Coast.
The naming rights phenomenon exists and it ain’t going away. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.