The Underground Is So Over

For a while last month, it looked like Fred Burkhart really was down-and-out. On the evening of June 29 the old beatnik climbed a stepladder to mount a six-foot-long sign he hoped would reverse the fortunes of his weekly open mike and coffeehouse, Burkhart Underground. He’d been operating the performance space for six years on the lower level of his ramshackle home at 2845 N. Halsted, right below the art gallery and photography studio he’s maintained there for many more years. His alcohol-free Sunday night soirees usually attracted an audience of 20 to 80 mostly underage would-be hipsters by word of mouth. They paid a suggested donation of five bucks each–if they paid at all–for coffee, tea, or soda and took a turn at the mike or simply soaked up the red-light-and-incense atmosphere, listening to bands like Milkbaby, browsing the gallery, and playing chess in the backyard. But in recent months attendance had lagged, and Burkhart, thinking a little visibility might help, hit on the sign. It wasn’t fully attached when he felt the ladder shift and give way, trapping his legs behind the rungs as he fell. As soon as he hit the pavement, he knew his back was broken. “I couldn’t move, I was partially paralyzed, and within two seconds the sign came crashing down on my head,” he says. “At that instant I knew this was my fate. It was a sign from God.”

Burkhart’s life story, as he tells it, is available to anyone with Internet access. Three years ago (and this is part of the tale), someone gave him a computer, and he taught himself how to use it. Now his Web site,, is a virtual version of his home, with an online gallery showing the work of other artists, a section of his own paintings and photographs (including his inventory of “naked white women” and documentary shots of the Klan), articles profiling the coffeehouse, his take on everything from sex to religion, and extensive accounts of his background, beginning with his childhood in an Ohio garage with his coal-miner grandfather. Told that his father died in World War II and that his mother had abandoned him, he was adopted at age ten by a couple he would later learn were his paternal uncle and aunt. (Just eight years ago, Burkhart says, he also learned that it was his father who’d left town and that his mother was a woman he’d known as a waitress in a local restaurant, who treated him kindly but never let on about their relationship.) Smart but socially maladroit, Burkhart drifted into delinquency in adolescence, ripping off record shops and experimenting with drugs. “It didn’t take much to put a boy away in those days,” he says. He dropped out of school in tenth grade and spent the next three years in reform school.

After getting out, Burkhart worked on riverboats, had a “real” job at an office supply company for a year, and–vowing never to work another–lived the boho life in New York and California, waking up one day on Venice Beach to find a decade had gone by. Back in Cincinnati, still deep into alcohol and drugs, he wound up in jail, took a good look at his then 40-year-old self, swore off the hard stuff, grabbed a piece of butcher paper and a pen, and began drawing. “I walked out the door with this drawing, and I’ve never been back in jail since,” he says. He moved to Chicago with a girlfriend and rented a storefront near where he lives now. On the day their lease expired, they stumbled upon the century-old house on Halsted. It had a for rent sign and a “compassionate old Jew” of a landlord who, when he heard they were expecting a baby, told them to keep their first month’s rent. That was 18 years ago. Burkhart’s daughter, Trinity, the love of his life (and queen of his Web site), was born on Valentine’s Day and became his constant companion–until her mother left him nine years ago, taking Trinity with her. Burkhart sees his daughter irregularly now. He says he started the coffeehouse–where he’s been known to distribute cards soliciting models–so she’d have a place to come back to.

Burkhart thought the coffeehouse would be a communal project, with others pitching in to help run it, but that never happened. Instead, he says, he was spending 30 or 35 hours a week on it. In a flinty letter to his e-mail list, written upon his return home from the hospital, he noted that the coffeehouse kids, who “never showed up to do anything,” weren’t pitching in now that he needed money for food and rent either. “I’m asking you to help me stay afloat in this time of crisis….I can give you photos and art in exchange for your donations,” he wrote. As for the coffeehouse, “unless someone wants to take it on themselves and organize future coffeehouse events around here, don’t expect me to….I am using this time to prioritize, and return to my own art, not yours.” Burkhart says he gets a government disability stipend that puts food on the table, but he needs “about two grand a month” to pay the rent and utilities. Last month people came through with some help–not the Underground crowd, but others who’ve known him for years, and there’s been talk of a couple of benefits, to be held at venues other than the house on Halsted. Burkhart’s on the mend and says the coffeehouse may reemerge for special events, but it won’t be back on a weekly basis.

Barebacking Into the Sunset

Last Friday, not quite a year after Season of Concern executive director Brian-Mark Conover rocked the boat by appearing as the subject of a Reader cover story on his life as a porn star and poster boy for unprotected sex, SOC announced that it’s looking for his replacement. Barry Taylor, president of the organization, which is the Chicago theater community’s major AIDS fund-raiser, says last year’s controversy had nothing to do with Conover’s departure. Although some board members and others questioned whether barebacking self-described sex pig was an optimal public persona for the organization’s only paid employee, Taylor says the board fully endorsed Conover and that the fracas had no effect on donations. “This was totally his decision,” Taylor says. “Brian-Mark’s done a terrific job for us over the last ten years.” Conover says he’ll leave in mid-September for Florida, where he’s taking a public relations job with a gay-owned mortgage broker. He hates winter, he says, and besides: “I’m always one to rise to new challenges.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.