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My weekend in Chicago with the Stranglers by DC-in-Detroit

DC is a longtime contributor to the MCB.
She can be reached at [at]

The Stranglers
7-8 June 2013
Cobra Lounge, Chicago

Twenty years ago, I saw the Stranglers at the Royal Oak Music Theater.

At the time, I didn't see many concerts -- it just wasn't my thing yet. Thankfully, I had the good sense to see a few significant bands, though, the Stranglers included. I was so in love with one of their songs -- just one! -- that I decided it would be worth going to the show just to hear it live.

Even then, I went to most events by myself, but at this show, something unusual happened, something which had never happened before. Before the Stranglers played, I was standing by the railing off the dance floor area when someone approached me. He said he was traveling with the band as a photographer, and they -- the band -- wanted to know if I would like to meet them after the show. A likely story, I'm sure. He told me to come out the bus after the gig, and I could confirm it myself.

A couple of hour later, I found myself on a tour bus, under "threat" of being kidnapped to wherever the next show was.

Being the serious young woman I was, all I was thinking was that I had to work the next day.

Had I known then what I know now…

Twenty years later, I see probably 30-40 shows a year, and I've become even more of a fan of the Stranglers. They still have a couple of standout songs that I love, but more amazingly, I can't think of a single song they've done that I just don't like. I go further back in their timeline, and I love it… I forward through the lineup adjustments and stylistic changes and into the more recent stuff, and I love it. This is how, without me even really thinking about it, the Stranglers became one of my all-time top 3 or 4 bands. I can listen to any of their music, at any moment, and it'll make me happy.

Because they hadn't even touched my continent in a couple decades, I didn't think I'd be seeing them live again, probably ever. When I saw the announcement for this limited tour in support of their new album "Giants," there was never any question that I'd be going. Not to see them as a nostalgia act -- and believe me, I have no problem with nostalgia acts (see: DEVO, Public Image Limited, Gary Numan, Thrill Kill Kult, Nitzer Ebb...) -- but as a hardworking band who never stopped evolving and recording. And as a band I'd actually pay my own money to see, which is an increasing rarity for me. It went on my calendar in DO-NOT-MISS-red.

A couple of weeks before the tour was to start, MCB Bossman got a note from the Stranglers' artist management asking if we'd be interested in interviewing JJ Burnel for a little pre-tour exposure. When Kirk told me he'd volunteered me for the chat, I'll be honest, I wasn't crazy about the idea.

JJ Burnel is a major force, a huge driver of both the band's sound and success. He's also had quite a reputation for kicking back against the press, sometimes physically. Granted, that was long ago, in our violent days of youth. But still, I couldn't imagine how this interview could do anything other than cast a dusty shadow over a band I'd loved for years. But I had a job to do, so I jotted down a few questions and waited for the phone call.

Alexandra from the management office got me on the line first, with a chipper and very English "Hello!"

"I've got JJ on the line, go ahead!" she told me and then bowed out.

"JJ!" I started nervously. "Hi!" I was determined I wasn't going to let this interview be a dog. And then…everything changed.

"Dorion!" he started, laughing gently. "I have some questions for you Dorion!"

Now, when you've got a name like Dorion, it becomes almost magical in other people's mouths. Chances are, you've never known more than one or two Dorians in your life (and never, in fact, a Dorion). Whenever I hear my name, I know I am being spoken to -- it's not meant for anyone else in the room. Hearing it in JJ's soft-spoken and cheerful English accent completely disarmed me from the get-go.

"Uh, okay…?" was all I could say.

"First of all, I was expecting a bloke! Sorry, I'll have a word with Oscar [Wilde, creator of the slightly-more-famous Dorian Gray] about that. Secondly, I'm intrigued! Detroit is bankrupt, or on the verge of being bankrupt. Are you actually in Detroit itself, or are you in one of those plush suburbs like Ann Arbor or something?"

Wait, who is being interviewed here?

We talked about Detroit for a few minutes. For someone who hasn't even been in the States for 20 years, he knew more about what was going down here than would most. Then again, he is a musician and clearly a student of different musical styles, and this IS Motown. After joking a little about how Iggy Pop is actually from Ann Arbor and not Detroit at all, JJ still confirmed that Detroit is the home of a lot of music he loves.

I tried to keep the interview "on target," I really did, but JJ is an interesting, curious, intelligent, friendly fellow, and all I could do was follow his lead. I mean, if JJ Burnel wants to talk about the bankruptcy of my city, or why my name is spelled with an O, that's what we're going to talk about.

He charmed me, I admit. Not that I resisted much, but one does try to be a professional. (Stop laughing, I said try.)

"The last time you guys were here, I was actually at that show in 93. And boy I tell ya, I was thinking about it when I was considering what I want to ask you, and I thought, man, if I knew then what I know now, I would have taken the opportunity and stayed on the bus with you guys!"

"Excuse me!" he laughed. "The invitation is still there!"

Resisting every impulse I had, I tried to steer myself back to appropriate topics. And for a moment, we talked about how his singing style has changed over the years.

"I don't think I do have a singing style, exactly. If I can sing a song, if it's within my range… I haven't got a specific singing voice. I can whisper, in the French way, à la Française -- which is where you find me now, I'm in France at the moment -- which is a traditional kind of French way of singing, especially since Serge Gainsbourg got all of his girls to sing...breathily. I've breathed on songs, and I've also sometimes growled on songs, I've tried some quite low in the early days, but I gave up on that. I adapt to what I think the song needs, to be honest."

I'll take a breathy JJ any time, but I do miss the growly JJ (see: "Something Better Change").

Then damned if he didn't bring us back to talking about my name. "Now, one more question. Dorion. I've never heard of a girl called Dorion."

I gave in and told him my version of the legend of how I came by this name, spelled this way.

"That's Romanian!" he teased.

We bonded over the challenges inherent in having a difficult name -- JJ being, in fact, Jean-Jacques -- but he definitely has me beat: "The worst thing, and it's unforgivable really, every time I did get a gold or platinum or silver record or whatever, the record companies always misspelt the Burnel. They always put two Ls on." We laughed over the 'insult.' "But nah, really, I didn't give a fuck."

On the subject of best-sellers, I had to ask about what is, to me, THE song: "Golden Brown," which I've described as as close to perfect as a modern song could be.

"The song came about, as all songs, organically, but the fact that it was a hit was almost accidental, if such things can be, because the record company didn't want to release it. They thought 'all right, we're nearly over, we'll get these brutes out of our hair…' and we had to insist, and invoke a clause in the contract, which forced the record company to release it. So, they released it just before Christmas. In the old days, right before Christmas, all the commercial records were released -- it was like a tsunami of songs, and so they released it before Christmas, thinking it would probably be drowned in said tsunami. But it just developed legs and it became a worldwide hit. So it was like fingers-up to the record company, who thought they'd written us off. And then of course, typical of record companies, they wanted a repeat! Once they'd realized it was a worldwide hit, they wanted something very similar. So we gave them something completely different, in French, lasting 7 minutes! It was sweet revenge, and it was a fingers-up at the same time."

After more than 30 years, I had to wonder if he could even tolerate playing it any more.

"I don't mind playing Golden Brown. I try not to have my eyes glaze over when I play it [laughs]… The refreshing thing is that people love it, and so when you get feedback from people, it stabilizes any possibility of ennui that you might get from playing a song that you've played for quite a while. Having said that, there have been a few songs, including Golden Brown, that we just didn't want to play any more, so we stopped playing them. There's nothing worse than seeing someone go through the motions. It becomes a cabaret, or karaoke act, and that's not what the Stranglers are about. If the band are just going through the motions, what's the fucking point?"

We did eventually talk a little about the new album, "Giants," which at that point hadn't had much exposure here:

Flirty devil. Can you hear me metaphorically biting my tongue?

I was looking forward to the show before I'd spoken with JJ Burnel; after, the 30th could not come soon enough.

I'd injured my knee a week earlier, which only slowed me down enough that I didn't go crazy making something to wear to the show. Oh I made something, just not something crazy.

Custom-embroidered iconic "rattus" emblem.
After staying off my leg for a full week, I finished customizing this jacket the night before the show. In the morning, while I was wrapping my grotesquely swollen knee, I got the email that the Detroit show had been canceled. Nooo! Oh cruelty! While my knee was no doubt relieved, the rest of me was pissed.

The venue and the Stranglers site told the same story: A government delay meant the band couldn't get their visas in time to make Detroit from Toronto. Canada being a short walk from home, it's easy to forget it's practically a whole different country.

I'd already teased JJ during our talk that Chicago was an easy drive from Detroit, and that maybe I should make that show, too. Now I got really serious about making good on that threat, for fear that our gig would be canceled all together rather than just postponed.

Chicago got two dates, made necessary by the fact that the first one sold out in something like 45 seconds. Good for them, but it made me wonder what's wrong with Detroit that we didn't sell out! Slackers. Also turned out the first date was 7 June, which happens to be the official Opening Day of my birthday season. (Actual birthday, 7 July. I don't celebrate any other holidays, so I get a month.) The trip was booked.

Detroiters have a bit of a love affair with the city of Chicago; at least all the Detroiters I know do. Chicago is enough like Detroit that we're comfortable there, while at the same time having the advantage of actual city. Unfortunately for me, I forgot about that last part when I got behind the wheel at 11am, figuring I'd be at the hotel by 4 or 5pm. On a Friday.

Yeah, I know. I told you, I forgot.

After making great time getting into the area, it took me 2 hours to get from one side of town to the other (where my hotel was). I had intended to get checked in, showered and changed, and to the club early enough to check out what this VIP access was all about. That dream died idling on I-90. I eventually made my room, got cleaned up, gave myself an hour to get the 12 miles back to the club, and finally started my evening.

Let me tell you one immutable truth I've learned from my years as an entertainment columnist: If your name is supposed to be on the door list, you'll be lucky if it's there half the time. Doesn't matter the venue, the performer, the promoter…the variable is what happens once I get there and no one can find my name. The people working the door at the Cobra Lounge -- a cool little space in the outer loop neighborhood, just the kind of place I'd hang out if I were local -- were very helpful and worked to confirm me any way they could. After a couple of minutes of chatting and learning about some very interesting upcoming shows, someone popped out with a hand-written list bearing "PRESS" with exactly two names: mine and a guy from the Onion. Prestigious company indeed.

The whole place holds maybe 150 people, and when I got there, there was still space to sit at the front bar, where I sat and scanned the room. More or less the crowd I'd expect -- primarily 30s-40s, average concert-going types, with the occasional mohawk or old-skooler for color. Oh, and a couple of women at the other end of the bar who looked awfully familiar: more Detroiters I know from around the scene.

More of a surprise, though, was how friendly people were. I was sitting at my spot at the bar, trying to protect my knee by keeping it tucked under, which put me in a somewhat awkward pose. Maybe it was a body language thing, maybe it was a Chicago thing, maybe it was a Stranglers thing, I don't know; but I have never had so many people buy me drinks in my life. It started when a woman wedged next to me to order, and asked me if they had Malört at this bar. I didn't even know what Malört was, which prompted her to insist on an extra shot for me.

It's disgusting, but evidently, a Chicago rite of passage. Eh, I've had worse.

During an animated conversation with another friendly group, I learned something shocking: thanks to Red Bull, the original ticket price for the night's show was $3. No wonder it sold out in 45 seconds! One fella's friends cancelled at the last minute, so he sold his extra tickets for the exorbitant price of $15 each. Unexpectedly on his own, he stuck pretty close to me while we waited. And oh yes, he bought me more drinks.

The performance space at the Cobra is separated from the front bar area, and I hadn't explored it much during the opening acts. Just before it was time for the Stranglers to get started, I revolved on my seat to head toward the door in, and found the area packed with people. When did they all get there!

My POV on night one. I am at the absolute back of the room; it's really as cozy as it looks.
I managed to get myself set up against the side bar, again with my very tender knee tucked under the bar to protect it, and decided I wasn't going to move from that spot. This was a painful decision for me, because I so wanted to be in the middle of the room, bouncing with the sweaty masses. But the leg was already swelling and promising more tortures to come, so I wasn't about to start negotiating with it.

For $3, and on a Friday night, I suspected a lot of the people there wouldn't necessarily know the Stranglers much. I'm glad to say I was wrong. When our Meninblack took the stage at 11.15pm, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd went nuts, joyously bouncing along to every song, old and new.

The Cobra stage is pretty small, barely enough to contain Baz Warne alone, let alone JJ dancing about. Dave Greenfield was barely visible in the back, behind his keyboard stacks, and Jet Black was not visible at all, since he isn't playing on this tour (stand-in Jim Macauley did a bangup job).

Let me say a couple of things about Baz Warne. First of all, I can't help it, and I'm not even going to try: he's a sexy motherfucker. The "new guy" in the band (merely 13 years), he steps up as the frontman, a job JJ Burnel doesn't much seem to want. In addition to lead guitar and vocals for the more recent releases, Baz has taken over Hugh Cornwell's vocals on the older tunes. And he fits in beautifully.

If Baz is now the face of the Stranglers, JJ remains the heart. Rarely smiling, and almost never speaking to the crowd, JJ nonetheless looks like a man who could not love his job more. His feet were always moving -- as he's been studying martial arts for most of his life, at least we knew he had perfect control when he kicked over the head of the guy at the front of the stage. Not quite like a bassist to be dancing around the stage, but JJ isn't quite like your average bassist.

The crowd was just as happy as could be -- and well-behaved -- even taking on the chorus in "Always the Sun." And how could anyone listen to this music and not be happy? Blissfully taking it in, I silently motioned for the bartender to pour another shot for me while he was doling Jager to the guy next to me. The man looked at me, smiled broadly, and wouldn't allow me to pay. A couple of songs later, the bartender set another shot at my hand. I looked up from it to see Jon, the fella who had been stood up by his friends, pointing to me from the far end of the bar. Well, if you insist!

At about 12.40am, Baz informed us, "We could do the asshole rockstar thing and pretend like we're going offstage until you make us come back, but we're not going to do that bullshit." And then they gave us another 10 minutes, before leaving us for good.

Jager or no Jager, I was in heaven.

While the crowd thinned, I returned to the front bar where I was rejoined by my new friend Jon. Even though he wasn't familiar with a great deal of their music, he admitted the concert was fantastic. We had another drink (or maybe 3) and talked about what to do next. You see, Chicago is a 4am town, and it wasn't even 2.

Even so, this bar was eager to get us moving out. Looking over Jon's shoulder toward the door, I saw a familiar face that surprised me enough that I loudly called out to him: "JJ!"

JJ Burnel paused at the door and casually looked around the room to see who was trying to get his attention. I stepped to him and gave him my hand. "Dorion," I said goofily, "with an O."

He took my hand in both of his, and his eyes lit up with recognition. "Dorion!" he said happily, and kissed me on each cheek (French, remember). "You made it! I am so sorry about Detroit, but it was really out of our hands. Did you drive in today?"

As we tried to have a friendly conversation, the bar was telling us to get out, a sloppily drunk girl was desperately trying to get JJ's attention, and Jon was behind my shoulder waiting for me to leave with him. I was a little tipsy, exhausted, and I confess, a bit atwitter, but for a few beautiful moments, we were the only people in the room.

"Did you enjoy the show?"

"Oh I loved it, you guys sounded great."

"Will you be coming tomorrow?"

"Well, I was planning on driving back home in the morning..."

"You should come up tomorrow! We'll have a whole new set."

Who am I to say no?

We chatted a bit more until we were forced out of the bar. Leaving just ahead of me, I saw Baz Warne making his way out. "Baz!" I chirped at him. With a big smile and a wave at the room, he disappeared.

There's that contrast again: Baz the rockstar, waving grandly at the room, while JJ stops to kiss a cheek.

Jon and I walked out to my car, and as we discussed following to a local karaoke dive, a cab slowly rolled past. The window came down, and JJ called out, "Good night, Dorion!"

"Night, JJ!" I casually waved back.

This is the part of that entire day that I'd trap in amber.

After some drunken karaoke with tone-deaf office girls, coke dealers, and a gentleman from Hamtramck by way of Bangladesh (who was shocked I knew of either of those places), I rolled into my hotel lobby at 5am with two questions: "What's the latest I can check out? And how much for another night?"

The hotel was booked solid for the next night, but they agreed not to kick me out until 2pm. That just left me with 4 or 5 hours to fill until it was time to try to talk my way back into the club. Under normal circumstances, I'd relish the opportunity to at least pop in on one of the museums -- Field Museum being a favorite of mine -- but I knew I'd have neither the time, cash, nor leg power to spare, so I puttered around Rosemont. After a leisurely lunch at the most artificial "entertainment district" I'd ever seen (seriously, it's comical), it occurred to me that I could use another concert outfit, as I'd only packed one.

Sometimes you just gotta thank dog for suburban strip malls.

One trip to TJ Maxx later, I was in a McDonald's bathroom doing a full wardrobe change, along with hair and makeup. It's a glamorous life…try not to be jealous.

The Rosemont "entertainment district," glamorously wedged between a parking structure and a freeway.
Me and my fancy new clearance rack duds made it back into the city in time for the VIP reception. After our conversation the night before, the doorkeepers recognized and wristbanded me without issue. Exhausted, I headed straight to the bar for a Red Bull, where a lovely blonde noticed and commented on my jacket. (That jacket should have its own Facebook page.) Kaylee had come in from San Diego for the show. She'd known JJ and (former bandmate) Hugh Cornwell from about 30 years ago, back when they were spending time on the east coast.

Somehow I'd already missed the meet-and-greet -- couldn't find the band anywhere -- but Kaylee and I became fast friends. The lady has got some stories, let me tell you.

Feeling more confident in my ability to stand unassisted, and the relative gentleness of the crowd, I joined Kaylee right up front, early enough to enjoy Mike Marlin's excellent set.

When the lights went down for the headliners, the crowd pressed in, locking me in place at the edge of the stage. The band emerged, and the jam-packed room went wild. Baz hit the mic to praise Chicago, while JJ pointed down at the stage front and cheerfully called, "Kaylee!" Even standing behind her, I could tell she was beaming. A couple of songs in, JJ saw me standing at Kaylee's shoulder, and with another big smile, he pointed me out and called out, "Dorion!"

For the majority of the performance, those were the only two words JJ spoke on stage. Damn right we were beaming.
My POV for night two.
Being right up at the stage, I had a different view of the audience, and it was clearly a crowd in love. I had joked to Kaylee earlier that there was no danger of a mosh pit breaking out -- I was wrong there. "Hey! (Rise of the Robots)" had the people going loopy, with one intrepid young man actually crowd surfing. (Yes, I, too, remember the 90s.)

They played my song of course, THE song. Before Macauley even started the windup, I could just feel it coming. And rather than privately basking in the beauty, I brought it home for you:

Okay, so Baz didn't exactly treat the song with solemnity, but when you need a toweling off, you need a toweling off. His noggin practically needed its own roadie.

They again dispensed with the faux encore and finished up at about 1215am with "Tank." Word was the band went on earlier that night because they were flying straight out to California after the gig. In spite of missing the chance to meet the band, before or after the show, I had zero complaints about the evening's experience.

I also had zero lodgings for the night, so I left the Cobra and headed home to Detroit, driving straight into the sun.

It's a special experience being able to see a band that you've enjoyed for such a long time. The Stranglers are especially rare in that they've continued to create and play and tour for all these years. Seeing them perform in 2013 didn't make me feel like it was 1993 again; it was much better.

We won't have to wait another 20 years to see the Stranglers again either -- they'll be making it up to Detroit this September. Stay tuned to MCB for announcements.