Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
The Teddy Bears tune “To Know Him Is to Love Him” has been running through my head the past couple weeks. Phil Spector, who wrote the song, borrowed its title from the inscription on his father’s tombstone. Without knowing anything about his dad, I think those words might be even more apt for one particular fan of Spector’s work: incomparable producer, manager, arranger, and singer-songwriter Joe Cassidy.
Cassidy died on Thursday, July 15, and at the memorial the following Sunday, his old bandmate Aaron Miller said he could make a line of “I was Joe Cassidy’s best friend” T-shirts—it’s a true statement for so many people. Joe was my friend and collaborator for more than 20 years, and the loss of this kind superhuman and paragon of the Chicago music scene has been devastating to me and uncountable others.
I met Joe Cassidy at a Primal Scream show at Metro in 2000. He was introduced to me by former Mercury Rev front man David Baker, who thought Joe would make a good producer for my nascent, half-baked “psychedelic” music. I later realized Joe was the mind behind Butterfly Child—I already owned several of the band’s releases, including a 45 on Rough Trade—and we bonded over our mutual love of Syd Barrett, My Bloody Valentine, Scott Walker, Marcel Duchamp, and cartooning.
- I already owned Butterfly Child’s 1992 Rough Trade single when I met Joe in 2000.
Cassidy did in fact produce several of my projects and collaborations throughout the aughts, including Plastic Crimewave Sound’s 2009 album with legendary guitar explorer Michael Yonkers. His skills were way out of my league, but he taught me so much about recording and arranging and indulged my mad ideas—all the while regaling me with great stories and hilarious dirt about any 80s or 90s band I could name.
When I was broke, Joe let me trade my childhood Star Wars figures for studio time—even though he was a big collector and surely didn’t need them. He later accepted artwork in trade, when I made a poster for his band the Assassins (Plastic Crimewave Sound opened for them at Schubas). Much more important, we became friends, and I loved Joe like the older brother I never had.
Joe was an actual older brother too, to sister Frances and brother Michael. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on August 31, 1969. His dad wrote lyrical poems, and his granny played piano. At the memorial, Frances told tales of harmonizing with Joe on “Frère Jacques” as kids, of being young goths together, and of a teenage Joe cranking up his bass till the whole neighborhood shuddered.
Handsome and charismatic, Cassidy started his first band, the Gift, in his early teens, playing with his mate Steve Craig, and their demo got airplay on BBC Radio Ulster. After Craig joined darkwave band BFG in the late 80s, Cassidy started commuting to Manchester to play bass with them. BFG had famously borrowed Peter Hook’s Oberheim DMX drum machine, which he’d used to create New Order’s iconic “Blue Monday,” and Joe liked to tell a great story of his hero Hooky showing him how to use his bass rig. Cassidy stayed with BFG through the two EPs they released in 1987, and earned his first writing credit by age 18.
Cassidy then started his own band, Fringe Mistress, and after he switched to guitar it became Butterfly Child (named for a character in a story he’d imagined in his parents’ overgrown garden as a wee lad). The group started with a drum machine, Willy Sharpe on second guitar, and Michael “Pace” Paisley on bass, though Sharpe was soon replaced by Tony McKeown. When Butterfly Child played their first London gig in October 1991, Cassidy’s close friend Gary McKendry (of the band Papa Sprain) also played guitar, and McKeown moved to bass. Within a couple months, Butterfly Child and Papa Sprain had both put out their debut EPs, which were also the first releases on the H.Ark! label run by the members of A.R.Kane, a proto-shoegaze band Cassidy loved.
- “Jaqueline Frost” appears on Butterfly Child’s debut release, the 1991 EP Tooth Fairy.
By the time Butterfly Child dropped their second EP in 1992, Cassidy had grown into a wizardly songwriter, his ethereal tunes easily competing with the best the dream-pop era had to offer. Unfortunately H.Ark! turned out to be a short-lived endeavor, and Butterfly Child’s next two labels both tanked too. Rough Trade released the album Onomatopoeia in 1993, just as it was struggling through a bankruptcy, and Dedicated followed two EPs with The Honeymoon Suite LP in 1995, then folded by ’98.
But as Cassidy’s music-biz prospects foundered, his songwriting flourished. His first full-length, the aforementioned Onomatopoeia, was a modestly budgeted production that nonetheless created an entire alternate universe of lush, immersive tunes. (Cassidy adeptly described his sound as “big intimacy.”) His bandmates in Butterfly Child came and went, and the name came to be synonymous with Cassidy himself, kind of like “T. Rex” turned into shorthand for “Marc Bolan.”
Cassidy was tired of hassles with his various UK labels, so he jumped at the chance when Chicago-based HitIt! Recordings, which had licensed Butterfly Child in the States, invited him here to make use of a studio in 1997. “I just fell in love with Chicago,” he recalled in a 2015 interview for XS Noize. “I recorded eight tracks in a week, and then the label asked if I wanted to make an album. So I went back, and stayed for ten years! I’ve always gone where the chance to make music has been afforded to me.”
Cassidy hired seasoned local players, including John Herndon of Tortoise and Nick Macri, for 1998’s classic Soft Explosives. That album expanded his vision even further, approaching Brian Wilson-esque levels of divine anguish, but for many years it looked likely to be the final Butterfly Child release.
- The video for Soft Explosives track “Drunk on Beauty,” directed by Craig Abell-Champion
In 2001, in need of a new outlet, Cassidy started electro-punk unit the Assassins with future romantic partner Merritt Lear (already a frequent Butterfly Child collaborator), Alex Kemp from Rhode Island group Small Factory, and two members of Chicago band Marvelkind, Aaron Miller and Dave Golitko. They tore up the local scene, landed opening slots for the likes of Hard-Fi and New Order, and signed to Arista in 2003. Alas, label exec L.A. Reid, who’d brought the band aboard, was let go along with his staff, and the Assassins found themselves orphaned. It took the band a couple years to get out of their deal on terms they could accept, and in 2006 they finally released the album You Will Changed Us themselves, after rerecording most of its songs to cut down on the share of sales they’d owe Arista.
“The musical landscape had changed drastically, and the music industry was starting to collapse,” Cassidy told XS Noize. “I needed somewhere mellower to live and work.” In 2007 he moved to Los Angeles, where he transitioned into production and management work. You might’ve seen his credit on the 2009 collaboration Cottonwood Farm, by great American songwriter Jimmy Webb and his sons Christiaan and Justin of the Webb Brothers (whom Cassidy had befriended in their Chicago days).
In 2015, when Cassidy released Futures, the first Butterfly Child album in almost 18 years, the sun-kissed vibe of LA permeated its music. The Webb Brothers played on it too, alongside stalwart Chicago drummer Ryan Rapsys, and it received rave reviews for songs that elevated heartache to still greater sonic heights.
After a brief stint back home in Ireland, Cassidy moved back to the Windy City in 2018. He stayed productive through the pandemic: he remotely completed the dreamy January 2020 album Our Life in the Desert, by a new project with McKendry called My Bus; he finished a second Assassins album that’s yet to be released; and he started another project called Batbirds with Aaron Miller of the Assassins. Knowing what a supreme multitasker Joe was, I’m sure he’d also recorded about a million other brilliant projects that we might never hear. He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly after being diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, which led to a coronary.
Joe and I chatted often, but the last time I saw him was while DJing at a neighborhood bar the winter before the pandemic. He came in and I rushed over to hug him, and it turned out he was trying to meet other people and had walked into the wrong bar. He stayed awhile, though, and uplifted the whole place before going on his magical way.
That was Joe—he always made time for his friends, despite his consistently insane workload, and he made you feel special, even in offhand moments. Before he left that bar, I remember seeing the famous sparkle in his eyes and hearing his adorable Irish pronunciation of “Chir-car-go.” Everyone who knew Joe was convinced he was an invincible and benevolent force of nature, and that he’d be that best friend to all of us forever. I already miss his beautiful, irreplaceable soul to an impossible degree. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
- “Loved You Now” is on the only Assassins full-length to date, 2006’s You Will Changed Us.
- Low Sea made this video for “Lost in These Machines,” from the final Butterfly Child album, 2015’s Futures.
- Joe Cassidy resumed his 90s partnership with Gary McKendry of Papa Sprain to make this 2020 album by My Bus.