There are reels and reels of tape around the workplace of Jim Rasfeld of Acme Recording Studios. “I came here three years ago,” he explains. “We would see a lot of bands come in and record material, and we’d say, “Wow, these are really great songs,’ and we wouldn’t see them do anything with it. So we decided, let’s do something with it ourselves.”

Jim got together with coworker Les McReynolds and searched through the miles of tape, looking for the good stuff, which they then laboriously narrowed down to the 13 tracks on 13 by Thirteen, a cassette-only compilation of Chicago-based rock bands. Even though the selection is obviously skewed by all tracks having been recorded at Acme, 13 by Thirteen is actually stronger than most other recent attempts at anthologizing the best of the local scene; it has work ranging from the relatively slick pop of the Messy Dates (“55 to St. Louis”) or A Fine Mess (“Designs on You”) to the angry guitar noise of Permabuzz (“Didn’t Have a Chance”), the smooth Gamble/Huff-tinged funk of Voodoo Butter (“Without Wires”), and the arty adventurousness of Ono (“Ennui”) and Tribe (“Paradox Swing”). Not only are three of my favorite Chicago bands represented here, but the tape doesn’t contain a single unlistenable track. It’s even forced me to reconsider a couple of local groups I thought I hated.

Some of this music has been released before on various independently released (and now nearly impossible to find) records and tapes, but a surprisingly high percentage of it is being let out of the can for the first time. Which raises an interesting question. Why would so many bands choose to go through the work and expense of putting so much decent stuff down in the studio, only to let it sit in tape cans instead of releasing it (at least on cassette)? Furthermore, why aren’t these acts drawing better in the clubs?

“It’s a Chicago disease,” hypothesizes Mike Rasfeld (Jim’s older brother), founder of Acme Studios and engineer on most of the tracks on 13 by Thirteen. “I think part of the second-city mentality that we put on ourselves is sort of an embarrassment about promoting ourselves as artists. At least in the music scene, anyway. An embarrassment about attracting attention to yourself, as if there’s something slick about that that has a bad taste. People believe that the integrity of their artistic endeavor will be tainted by promoting themselves. They might say, on one hand, ‘Well, if it’s really good, it’s going to get attention on its own.’ And they don’t want to be thought of as part of the mainstream.

“In Chicago, the musicianship level is very high. I can really jump up and down and be excited by it. And yet the buzz level about the local music scene is very low. The crazy thing is that I know the audience for all kinds of stuff is out there. And yet a lot of the people that potentially would like to hear alternative stuff have no idea that it exists. And that’s what I mean that it’s a disease. Because you’ll get support to that idea from other people: you can sit around talking with other bands talking about how they’re not really getting the proper attention that they deserve. But I don’t think that the real roots of that have been examined or talked about that much. I think you do get what you deserve, pretty much. There’ve been other bands that have promoted themselves and been able to get to the point where they’re able to say, ‘We want $1,500 for this night,’ and get it. Because the club knew that the band had done all this promotion and publicity and would attract a crowd that would bring the money in.

“There’s a business of music that isn’t addressed. It’s not just amongst the musicians, it’s amongst the club owners too. But I think it has something to do with the economics of the situation. If you had 20 record companies here, and you knew that A&R guys were out prowling the streets looking for new stuff, and that if they were coming into your club that it’d better sound good, start on time, and all that–so that you don’t get a reputation among these people in the business as a lousy club to go to–but that’s not here. When the club owner books a band that he’s told is gonna be a big draw, and 40 people show up, and he doesn’t hardly sell enough drinks to cover what he told the band he’d give them, he’s gonna be discouraged from getting it together. If there’s a minor problem in the sound system and he’s still worried about paying his bills, he’s not gonna take care of the sound system. But if there were hundreds of people showing up at that club, getting pissed off ’cause the band hasn’t started or the sound system’s screwed up, and there’s enough money flowing into the club where he feels like ‘Oh, I can afford to fix that,’ then you’d see the club situation improving.”

While admitting he feels he too has unwittingly played a small role in helping perpetuate the malaise of the Chicago rock scene, Mike, together with brother Jim, hopes 13 by Thirteen will help introduce the uninitiated to many of the area’s unjustly ignored talents. Given the cassette’s relatively high musical standard, I’m inclined to hope so too. A cassette release party on Thursday at Cabaret Metro, 3730 N. Clark, will feature live performances by seven of the bands on the cassette: Stranger, Voodoo Butter, Tribe, Permabuzz, Ono, Steve Laxton of the Messy Dates, and Todd Colburn of the Rules of the Game. The show starts at 9 PM; admission is $5. Copies of 13 by Thirteen, along with cassette EPs and LPs by various bands represented on the compilation, will be available for sale at the show. For more info call 549-0203 or 477-7333.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Paul Caplan.