By Neal Pollack
Last Saturday night, Jan Terri attended a party in her honor at the Hungry Brain, a low-key nightclub on Belmont near Western. The tribute was put together by many different people: a documentary film crew in from New York to follow Terri for the weekend, several local musicians who admire Terri’s music, and a group of gay men, Terri’s friends, some of whom work at Tower Records in Bloomingdale and all of whom sat at a table near the stage with Terri and determined that she looked fabulous.
Sean and Miguel, two of the guys, examined Terri’s makeup, which had been done earlier in the day by her friends at the Grand Illusion beauty salon, in Franklin Park.
“It’s not right,” Sean said.
They ushered Terri back to the women’s bathroom, and began applying touch-ups. The documentary director got wind of developments and dispatched a camera. Someone else stood in the doorway taking pictures. Terri sat on the only toilet, bemused.
“I hope nobody has to go to the bathroom right now,” she said. “Miguel, you got any more painkillers?”
“No, Jan,” he said. “No painkillers tonight.”
Before long almost a dozen people had crowded into the bathroom. Terri seemed annoyed. A woman approached the door.
“Do you need to use it?” said one of Terri’s boys.
“No,” the woman said. “I’m here to see Jan.”
It was Terri’s friend Blondie, who works with her at the Boston Coach limousine company.
“I brought Jonathan,” Blondie said.
“Hey, Jan!” said Jonathan. “Are they filming you in the washroom?”
“Yep,” Terri said. “They’re all in here.”
One of her friends held up a drink.
“A toast,” he said. “To Jan Terri, superstar.”
Terri looked into the camera.
“There’s no story here,” she said.
“There’s a story, Jan,” said the filmmaker. “You’re the story.”
Terri says she always wanted to be an entertainer. Her grandfather was a low-level Tin Pan Alley songwriter, and her father was a lightweight boxer who on weekends put on blackface and worked the bars on Mannheim Road performing as the “black Elvis.” Both parents were ballroom dance champions. “I guess I was born a ham,” she says.
She’s lived her entire life in Franklin Park, in a house she currently shares with her mother. During her high school years, she and her mom were in a PTA kitchen band that played instruments made from everyday household objects. Terri was the youngest member. Her instrument was a saxophone made from a kazoo, a paper-towel roll, a funnel, foil, and bottle caps. When the lady who played the overturned washbasin died, Terri took over her job.
Terri graduated from Columbia College in 1983 with a degree in broadcast communications and arts and entertainment management. While at Columbia, she took an internship at a recording studio in Hillside run by a country bar band called the Windy City Cowboys. Terri became their backup singer, performing at the Possum Pub, a honky-tonk in Melrose Park, and at numerous weddings. She learned songs by Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Barbara Mandrell, and began to write her own stuff. “You need to get that experience, being in the nightclubs,” she says. “It’s a different kind of atmosphere. A smoky one. Way too smoky. People were drunk and I couldn’t see. But that’s what you have to do. There are rewards and sacrifices in this kind of work. You just have to bear through it and do it.”
Terri doesn’t like to talk about the 1980s. A series of family crises halted her music career. She got a job as an assistant manager at a Montgomery Ward’s and later started driving a limo. In 1992, she entered the studio again and began producing her own music, and her march to notoriety began.
She assembled a reel of six songs–whiny off-key synth pop informed by the worst dreck of the 80s yet somehow worse. They’re maddeningly catchy. Homemade affairs featuring Terri’s friends from the beauty salon in supporting roles, the videos show Terri acting out the lyrics in various local settings. Some of the lip-synching is way off, and the editing is atrocious.
One song, “Losing You,” sounds like the Go-Gos if they’d never had a vacation. Terri, looking like Bette Midler trying to look like Pat Benatar, is picked up at a fancy hotel by a limousine, which whisks her down Lake Shore Drive. The trip is crosscut with shots of Terri singing alongside what appears to be a drainage canal and riding around on a motorcycle with some guy. They’re seen leaving a romantic meal at Bruna’s, on Oakley Avenue, and the story ends with Terri exiting from the limo at O’Hare, apparently tragically separated from the guy on the bike.
Another one, set at the Possum Pub, involves her hooking up with a handsome cowboy who has, “baby blues, so crystal clear / Clear enough to fill a swimming pool.” There’s a cutaway shot to some kind of a pond on the words “swimming pool.” And close-ups of the cowboy’s twinkling brown eyes. “My Little Brother” uses the lyrics to “Frere Jacques” to ill effect while Terri and her friends run around downtown at Christmastime. “Get Down Goblin” involves Terri and her friends dancing around a haunted house, and “Rock and Roll Santa” features most of the same people dressed as elves and rag dolls and the deathless line “jumpin’ around like a house on fire.” The best of the batch, “Journey to Mars,” uses both the O’Hare people mover and the neon tunnel in the United terminal. Terri and her friends dance around in silver space outfits and shout, “Beam Me Up, Scottie!” and there are many visual effects.
“Friends in the industry said I needed a video,” Terri says. “So I began cranking them out.”
If Terri can be said to have had a break, it came in 1993, when she dropped a press kit by the south suburban offices of Rose Records. The kit contained a copy of her first album, Baby Blues, her video reel, and a fact sheet with various bits of information about her, including the fact that she had recently taken third place in a Sally Field look-alike contest. It fell into the hands of a young ad rep named Jim Thompson, who was intrigued. He called Terri up. “I just loved her right away,” Thompson says. “The things she said. Being around Jan is like taking acid and not having the brain damage. You’ve come out of it an hour later.”
They became friends, and whenever anyone from a label came into Thompson’s office, he made them watch Terri’s videos as a matter of course. For some people, the experience was torture. For others, it was a delight. No one was ever bored.
By 1998, Thompson had moved on to Tower Records in Bloomingdale, where he booked Marilyn Manson for an in-store. As Manson’s limo pulled away, Thompson tossed Terri’s press kit into the front seat. Two months later, he got a call. Manson wanted to bring Terri to Los Angeles to play a birthday show for his girlfriend, the actress Rose McGowan.
Thompson grew protective; Terri was the musical equivalent of an outsider artist, and she was ripe for exploitation. “I made sure to let Jan know why things were happening for her,” Thompson says, “that she knew why people were getting into her. I said, ‘You know you’re campy, right?’ She said, ‘Oh, like summer camp?’ I don’t take any money from her. I try to keep her aware, but always try to put it in nice words. If I thought Jan was getting hurt in any of this, I’d be the first to tell her.”
Manson flew Terri first class. He put her up in a nice hotel. Thompson sent two friends to the party to take care of her, and they said Manson treated Terri like a queen. The next time Manson came through Chicago, Terri opened for him at the Aragon. The time after that, he set up a performance area backstage, and she performed for him and his friends between sets. She had a good time.
“There are so many people who are in bands who take themselves so seriously,” Thompson says. “She does it and she doesn’t care. She has sent her music to so many people. She nominated herself for the Country Music Awards. Trisha Yearwood is a big fan. Jan went backstage once in Nashville to meet Trisha. Trisha said, “You’re the one who sent me the music!” Here was this big country star excited about meeting Jan. It figured.”
Terri’s videos have since landed her on Mancow and The Daily Show, and her work is circulated through the VCRs of stoned college students everywhere. The reel recently came to the attention of Anne Hasenzahl, a New York actor looking to become a documentary filmmaker. Susan Tunney, a Chicago musician who went to college with Hasenzahl, has a friend who works for Polygram who introduced her to Terri’s oeuvre. Tunney showed the videos to Hasenzahl during a recent trip to New York, and it was determined that they would make a documentary.
This weekend, Hasenzahl and a crew of three women and a sound guy came to Chicago. Among the locations they visited were the Possum Pub, the Grand Illusion hair salon, and Terri’s house in Franklin Park. They attempted to gain access to a recording studio at Grand and Halsted, where Terri is cutting a new album called No Rules, No Boundaries, but the owner of the studio turned them down. Last year, apparently, another documentary crew came through and produced a work that everyone found very condescending and insulting, except for Terri, whose only complaint was that she didn’t like her hair.
This crew, however, was determined to get the authentic Jan Terri Story. “We thought we would humanize her and do a human portrait,” Hasenzahl says. “It’s not possible, because Jan is a huge character. She’s human, of course, but she’s still a campy person. For us to tone her down is impossible.”
All weekend, the crew manufactured events for their “documentary.” They set up a meeting between Terri and Susan Tunney. When they heard I was working on a story about Terri, they arranged to have me interview her in their hotel room, so they could have footage of Terri being interviewed by a journalist in a hotel room.
The centerpiece of the weekend was the show at the Hungry Brain. Behind the stage, the documentary crew had placed a backdrop of 16 identical portraits of Jan, lined up Andy Warhol-style. Hasenzahl said that she had arranged for the portraits to be done by Andrew, her sister’s good friend in New York, and he is a wonderful artist.
“There’s a major story here,” she said to me. “Well, not a major story like CNN, but it’s a good camp story.”
Later, I got to spend a few moments alone with Terri. She said, “I’m going for the Britney Spears look. My friends from Tower Records got me into Britney. This girl I went to high school with, her daughter was going to graduate one day and get married the next. So they had me sing a Britney song at the wedding. I could only sing one song. I had a Jedi flight that night. You know, the one where you fly all night and get off the plane saying, ‘I gotta make the donuts?’ That kind of flight. I hate those flights.”
Hasenzahl missed this authentic moment because she was introducing a Jan Terri cover band, led by Susan Tunney. They played several of Terri’s songs better than Terri ever could and imitated such moments from the videos as the “Get Down Goblin” dance.
“These songs rock,” Tunney said. “Fuckin’-A. Hopefully, Jan will be up shortly. We love you, my darling. You are fine. Fine ass.”
Jim Thompson and his friends, sitting at the front table, loved that line, and they whooped.
Tunney asked Terri to come onstage to play “Journey to Mars” and Terri agreed. Many people videotaped and photographed this important moment. “This is like a dream come true for me,” Tunney said. “It’s my favorite. My favorite one. I told Jan yesterday that this was my favorite one, and here she is, singing it.”
Tunney’s backup singer left the stage and picked up a video camera to film Tunney singing with Terri. Thompson bounced up and down. Everyone got great footage.
After the set, Terri was unimpressed.
“These people,” she said. “They made country songs into rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll into country. It’s kind of hard to follow.”
Later Terri performed a solo set, backed by a tape machine. Tunney stood behind her and danced, and various friends got up to sing along with their favorite songs. The crowd was singing along and whooping and drinking a lot of beer. Terri threw back her head and preened like a rock star.
She slowed it down and sang some country songs, including “Austin Not Boston,” which she recorded in Nashville in 1995 for an album that was never released.
“It just didn’t work,” Jim Thompson says. “The musicians were too good.”
The cover band got back onstage, and Terri played drums.
“She just wants to rock out,” Tunney said.
After that, the music degenerated into an improvised mishmash, but the people on stage seemed to be having fun.
Terri came offstage and gave Hasenzahl a big hug.
“How was I?” she asked.
“Awesome,” Hasenzahl said. “Awesome. You’ve got to sign some autographs.”
After the show, Terri stood outside on the sidewalk posing for more photos and video. The filmmakers chased her various fans down the sidewalk to capture their perspective on the evening. Jim Thompson joined Terri on the sidewalk.
“So, Jim,” she said, “is this a yuppie place, like Schubas?”
Thompson touched her shoulder, affectionately. “No, Jan,” he said. “This is better than Schubas. Because you’re here.”
A fan came up to Terri and pulled her away.
“Hey,” he said. “There’s some people here who wanted to meet you.”
“Of course,” Terri said, obligingly.
As she followed him inside she said, “Some people want pictures. Some want more songs. Is there anyone here who doesn’t want something from me?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.