By Neal Pollack
On the first Thursday of every month, Taki Pantos, a diminutive man in his early 50s, plays guitar and sings at Simon’s, a neighborhood tavern on Clark just north of Foster. He’s almost entirely self-taught, though as a teenager he studied accordion at Rizzo’s Music Academy on Irving Park. “I am cognitively delayed,” he says. “That’s another word for retarded. My mind doesn’t function as quickly as everyone else’s, but I still like to sing my own songs.”
Pantos was born in Greece but grew up on Barry near Halsted. In 1972 his family moved back to Athens, where he began writing songs. Upon returning to Chicago five years later, he roamed the streets of the far north side, strumming his guitar for tips. He says he performed at the taqueria next to the Green Mill until they “changed their policy” and kicked him out. He also made a little money playing in front of the Bryn Mawr el station. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, he’d go caroling and often make close to $500 by dinnertime.
One afternoon in 1994, Scott Martin, an options trader in his early 30s, was hanging out at Simon’s when Pantos came in with his guitar.
“Hi everybody!” said Pantos, as he started to play a song. “God bless!”
Back then Simon’s was populated by an aging group of Swedes who weren’t receptive to his Roy Orbison covers. One of the regulars crumpled up a dollar bill and threw it at his chest.
For the next few weeks, Pantos got the same frosty reception whenever he stopped by. Martin didn’t understand. He thought Pantos had a sweet voice and his playing wasn’t bad.
“He was this friendly guy singing songs,” Martin says. “Always smiling. His songs are all nice, about love, hopeful love, lost love, joyful hearts. Some of the bar regulars were so cruel. Well, I thought, we’ll get them.”
Martin, who already owned a bar in Lakeview, had decided to buy Simon’s. He asked Pantos if he’d like to sing there regularly. “We’d let him have his own night,” he says. “It did exactly what I’d wanted. Some of the old people stayed. But the real crabs who weren’t nice, they left. For good.”
Pantos was thrilled. “I’ve always wanted a job like this.”
Simon’s Tavern opened in 1934. In 64 years it’s had only three owners–a Swedish immigrant named Simon Lundberg, his son Roy, and Scott Martin. Roy Lundberg, who took over the operation in the early 60s, has lived above the bar his entire life. By the late 80s, he was tired. “My customers were getting pretty old,” he says.
Martin’s grandfather, Ernie Essler, was once a regular at Simon’s, and Martin himself had his first legal drink there. Even before he reached drinking age, though, Martin had worked in bars. His first job was at a place called Alice’s Tap on Ravenswood. He’d go in before school every day to mop, clean the toilets, and stock the coolers, always finishing early so he could have a few minutes to stand behind the bar and pretend it all belonged to him.
To Lundberg, Martin was the perfect successor. “Scottie does very, very well,” he says. “He’s very much interested in this tavern.”
“This is the shit, this joint,” Martin says. “I know that. Because there’s nothing fake about it.”
Martin has retained the flavor of the original Simon’s. He didn’t touch the deer-hunting mural on the north wall, the bulletproof check-cashing booth, or the portholes behind the bar, which were meant to make the tavern look like the stateroom on a luxury liner. He took Simon’s Swedish heritage to new heights of kitsch, installing an eight-foot-high neon herring above the entrance and perpetuating the cult of Malort, a vile liqueur that regulars call “the final solution.” Simon’s has for years been the foremost purveyor of Malort in the Chicago area, despite the drink’s immense unpopularity. Malort’s many detractors, while recognizing its efficacy as a digestive aid, say that it goes down like rotten grapefruit rinds. As legend has it, a member of the bar’s baseball team downed a shot one day after a game and said, “That stuff doesn’t taste so good, does it?”
Though Simon’s is occasionally plagued on weekends by cigar-smoking martini drinkers, during the day it’s populated by a friendly core of old Swedes and somewhat younger regulars, who spend their time shooting the bull about old movies and matching wits with TV quiz shows. “It’s not a sewer, and it isn’t pretentious,” says one of them. “This is a regular joint where people act like regular people. It’s a bar where you can have an intelligent conversation. Or maybe not.”
“We do get some nights in here when you just wonder, ‘Where are these people from, man?'” Martin says. “Don’t forget, this is just a tavern. It’s not a downtown hot spot. You walk in and you say hi to the guy on your left and hi to the guy on your right and the guy in front of you and the guy behind you. You talk. You don’t have to be scared or put on airs. It’s a tavern.”
The Thursday night shows were something new at Simon’s. Initially Pantos played every week, but soon Martin cut him back to once a month. He worried that Pantos’s popularity would get out of control, “like that Wesley Willis thing.”
Instead, Pantos has gradually developed a loyal following. A lot of people come in only on the nights he plays. They love his high-pitched voice, innocent delivery, and his original compositions, bubblegum love songs with titles like “Rosemary, Rosemary,” “Now and Then,” and “Lock Me in Your Heart.” They respond with exaggerated groans when he tells his lousy jokes.
For a time, Pantos was a one-man band, singing harmony along with tapes he’d made of himself playing various instruments. Martin encouraged him to get rid of the tape deck and stick to the guitar and accordion. Once he followed the advice, his audience grew. “The first time I saw him,” says one admirer, “I said, ‘That’s Brian Wilson if he never made it.'”
Before every show, Martin picks up Pantos at the apartment near Peterson and Ravenswood where he lives with his sister, Emily Mougolias. Pantos previously shared a home with his mother, Martha, who passed away last December. Mrs. Pantos kept Taki’s performances hidden from other family members. She feared they would tell him to stop.
“My family thought I was going around like a beggar,” Pantos says. “They didn’t know I was waiting to be discovered.” Only his nephew Jim Mougolias knew his secret.
“Taki, he’s a good guy,” says Jim. “He loves everybody he sees. One time a guy beat him up and took his guitar, but he said he wasn’t mad at this guy. ‘I don’t get mad at people,’ he said.”
After Martha Pantos died, Emily and her daughter were cleaning out the apartment. They found a sympathy card from Taki’s fans at Simon’s. It contained $300.
“Ma,” the daughter marveled, “they love him.”
Emily began attending Taki’s shows, and she was shocked. People were anxiously applauding songs that she’d been ignoring for 40 years. “It’s almost like he has…a following,” she says, a bit incredulously. “I didn’t think there were people like Scott left. He takes real good care of him.”
After every gig, Pantos counts his tips, eats a complimentary pizza, and drinks two glasses of tomato juice. He also passes around photos of his various craft projects. Early into his Simon’s residency, Pantos showed Martin a model of a roller coaster that he’d built out of toothpicks and Popsicle sticks. Martin was astounded by his artistry and told everybody at Simon’s about it. Pantos called it the Super Drop.
By this time, several musicians who hung out at the bar had become his friends. Two of them formed a band called the Super Drops. One helped Pantos copyright his songs, and yet another has been recording him in the hopes of producing an original CD. Meanwhile, Pantos has instructed the bartenders at Simon’s to save all their wine corks. He’s building a dollhouse, he says, and he needs the cork for the acoustical tile in its miniature recording studio.
Everyone who attended Pantos’s most recent performance at Simon’s agreed that he wasn’t at his best. About 20 of his regular fans showed up. Emily, Jim, and three teachers from the school where Emily works as a teacher’s aide were also in the audience.
Pantos wore brown polyester pants with a matching brown-and-white shirt. He warmed up the crowd with a cover. “The sky is dark, every night and every day,” he sang. “Saaaaaaay you want me back again. Saaaaaaaaaaay you want me back again.”
Then it was time for a joke. “There’s this one guy walking down the street,” Pantos said. “And he’s eating a banana. He drops the peel on the sidewalk. A policeman walks up to him and goes, ‘Well, the garbage is over there,’ you know. He goes, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t see it, officer.’ The officer says, ‘This time I’ll let you slide.'”
Pantos wiped his hand across his brow. He was sweating. He wasn’t feeling well, he said, and asked for water.
“Play one of yours, Taki!”
“You’re my only sunshine,” he sang. “All that I live for. Stay with me. Stay with me. Lock me in your heart.”
Pantos put down his guitar. His fans were surprised. It was too early for a break.
He rushed into the bathroom, clutching his stomach. When he emerged, Emily asked, “Taki, are you sure you’re going to be OK?”
“I’ll find out in a few minutes. I loosened my belt.”
“Just sit down for a while. Because when you don’t feel OK, you don’t sound like yourself.”
“Don’t be scared. Just sing like you always do.”
He returned to the microphone and sang, “Oh Carol, I am but a fool. You hurt me, and you treat me cruel.”
As Pantos played the first chords of “Town Without Pity,” the bartender slipped on rubber gloves and trudged into the bathroom with a mop. Emily rolled her eyes.
“Taki’s heart is in the right place,” she said. “But it’s like having a 12-year-old. You always have to watch out for him.”
“What happened to me before, it was like a curse,” Pantos told the crowd. “I will be honest with you that I got very sick. Somebody gave me an evil eye or something. Because of the curse, I’m not going to eat anything before I go to bed. It’s the curse of Elvis. He was all shook up too, you know.” He looked up to the heavens. “Forgive me, my king.”
The crowd roared. Everyone was at ease again.
Pantos played “All Shook Up,” then sat down with his accordion for “Lady of Spain” and “The Beer Barrel Polka.” His energy was gone, and the audience started to talk. He closed the show, as he usually does, by playing “96 Tears.” Pantos put down the accordion, removed his teeth, and headed into the crowd to talk to his fans. He looked relieved.
Jim Mougolias began taking down the equipment. Pantos sidled up to him.
“I’m afraid to go to sleep because of what happened tonight,” he said. “What if I don’t wake up?”
“Taki, it’s going to be OK.” Jim smiled gently. “I’m gonna be your manager from now on.”
“You don’t know what a lot of pressure it is to work with me. There’s a lot of tension, there’s a lot of stress. You have to make sure you get me to the TV stations on the time. If I get famous, that is.”
“Don’t worry, Taki.”
“Yeah,” Pantos said. “Right. Thanks to Simon’s, I’m gonna be famous.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Taki Pantos/ Scott Martin, Royy Lundberg/ outside photos by Nathan Mandell.