Morseland: Show’s Over
Given the hostility the Daley administration has shown toward neighborhood drinking establishments, it’s tempting to assume that every time a Chicago bar closes its doors it’s another strategic victory in the crusade to bully us dry. But though Bridget Duggan shuttered the Morseland–the low-key Rogers Park music and arts venue she’s owned for three years–a couple weeks ago in response to a citation from the city, she blames herself. “I don’t have any beef with the city,” she says. “I’m not arguing with them that we were not in compliance.”
No beef is actually the problem: the Morseland was busted for not serving food. Though it hasn’t really functioned as such since 1995, it’s licensed as a restaurant that can sell alcohol, not as a bar. Duggan, a 31-year-old former Loyola student who’d worked as a cocktail waitress and bartender there since 1993, took over the Morseland from the previous owner, who still possesses the building at 1218 W. Morse, in December 1996. He’d given up on the place, but in a surge of sentiment she offered to manage it for him and ended up buying the business for $3,000. “I thought we could make some money and I really wanted to keep it going,” Duggan says. “There’s still not much in Rogers Park to do entertainmentwise. It was a shame to see the place close down.
“I was naive when I took over,” she says now. She estimates that she’s put $100,000 in repairs and improvements into the space. Most of the money came from her parents, who live in Mount Prospect and whom she says she has yet to repay. With help from her brother Mike, she spent early 1997 fixing the place up–cleaning, painting, remodeling, installing a new sound system–and reopened that May. For a while they served a halfhearted buffet during shows, which ranged from improv to local ethnic music to open mikes to spoken word, but by this spring they’d given up on the food angle entirely. “Nobody really wants to eat here,” says Duggan.
Once she’d reopened, Duggan applied for a change of corporate officer–basically to have her name put on the liquor license–and the city said no. She appealed the decision, a process that took almost two years. She says one official who was involved told her she’d get the license, but that the Morseland would have to start operating as a restaurant again. “I said, ‘Oh sure, sure, we will,’ but we didn’t,” she says. “We had tried it in the past and we lost money.” Less than a month after the change was granted, undercover agents visited the Morseland, and on Friday, June 9, it got written up for noncompliance. To avoid further citations, Duggan closed up shop that weekend.
She’ll attend a hearing on August 3, where the city’s license commission will decide whether the Morseland should be warned, fined, or closed. “I’m going to go to the hearing but I’m not going to get an attorney,” she says. “We can’t afford one. I’ll be honest with them. The only time I was dishonest was during the final inspection, when I put tablecloths and salt and pepper shakers on the tables to make it look like a restaurant.”
Mike says he’s hoping to set up food service for real and is currently looking for someone to run the kitchen. But though Bridget, who’s been employed by Starbelly.com, a corporate merchandise design company based just across the street, since January, says she won’t stand in his way, she also refuses to put any more of her own time into the venture. “I have a full-time job, I have a boyfriend, and I’ve been doing this for three years now,” she says. “It’s not worth it and I just want to get on with my life.”
Mermaid Avenue, the brilliant 1998 collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco that set previously unused Woody Guthrie lyrics to original music, is one of those albums that grow richer with repeated listening. I’ve frequently blown off other things I should’ve been listening to just to hear “Ingrid Bergman” or “Hoodoo Voodoo” one more time. But I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed on first encounter with the recently released Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, which consists mostly of outtakes from the original sessions. It’s darker, more raw, and far less immediate, but after a few spins it too won me over. A couple years ago Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy told me that he imagined he and his bandmates were making their own version of The Basement Tapes during those sessions, and some of the songs here do have that air of hypnotic blues dementia. But Tweedy’s sublime pop sensibilities are perfectly showcased on others, like “Secret of the Sea.” The project also continues to bring out the best in Bragg–there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have used five years ago–from the hooky throwaway “My Flying Saucer” to the unsubtle “All You Fascists,” which Guthrie must’ve written for Bragg in an episode of ESP circa 1942. And one of the album’s greatest tunes is actually sung by blues revisionist Corey Harris, who fronts the crew on Bragg’s take on “Aginst th’ Law”: “It’s aginst th’ law to read, it’s aginst th’ law to write / It’s aginst th’ law to be a black or brown or white.” Bring on volume three.
Although the exact schedule for this year’s World Music Festival is still being worked out, many of the performers have been confirmed, and at first glance the lineup looks even better than last year’s. Among the highlights so far are Brazilian pomo popster Lenine (making his U.S. debut), Nubian oud master Hamza El Din, breathtaking Kurdish vocalist Sivan Perwar, Israeli singing star Chava Alberstein, and the superb Puerto Rican salsa group Plena Libre. Nearly 40 acts are scheduled to perform between September 21 and October 1.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.