My first semester as a grad student at Illinois was a bit of a washout in terms of establishing relationships with folks in my new surroundings. Eric, one of my suitemates in Sherman Hall, was a grad student in Labor and Industrial Relations. He and I sometimes hung out at the video game place a few blocks away in Campustown. But he finished his Master’s in December and moved back to New York. There was also Michael from Arkansas, a fellow newbie in math. We must have had a class or two together. He also lived in Sherman and had signed up for a meal plan just as I had, so we often walked to lunch and/or dinner together (the nearest dining hall, in a cluster of undergrad dorms, wasn’t overly close). But he was miserable there and didn’t come back in January.
Things began to turn around socially in January of 87. I made friends with a few folks by hanging out in the lobby of Sherman, playing cards and Trivial Pursuit. More importantly, though, I connected with John, Paul, and Will, initially as study buddies for our qualifying exams (the three of them did a better job of prepping that go-round—it’d be August before I passed them all). As the spring semester progressed, the four of us spent more time together, both for classwork and play. Paul (who was married, with two daughters) and Will had spent some time in the real world prior to pursuing a Ph.D., while John and I had come to Illinois straight from our undergraduate institutions. Come July, we were assigned an office together in a great location, the basement of the math building, where we stayed for the next five years.
Maybe soon after spring break, John, also a denizen of Sherman, began talking with me about sharing an apartment after the school year ended. He’d already committed to finding a place with Jim, a chemistry Ph.D. student and one of his suitemates, but they were interested in finding a third person to reduce costs. We found a reasonable three-bedroom about a mile east of campus, super-close to downtown Urbana, and moved there before the end of May.
Over that summer, John and I became better friends. We both enjoyed golf, though neither of us was especially good. He re-kindled my interest in baseball, introducing me to the work of Bill James and getting me up to speed about the players on his favorite team, the Cubs. We went in together on a Strat-o-Matic game. Since it had player cards from the 86 season, we recreated the epic Mets-Astros playoff series. I took the Astros, and that damned Lenny Dykstra played HR hero for John time and again, just as he had in real life. (We also got on a bit of a baseball card jag that summer—the 87 Topps cards are the ones with the wood-like panel backgrounds.) When the July 4th weekend rolled around, he invited me to go with him to Chicago; John grew up there and had gone to DePaul prior to attending U of I.
I had a fabulous time. We stayed at his sister’s apartment on the South Side, not terribly far from Comiskey Park, and took the L to various points north each day. We hung out with a good number of his high school friends, including Bill, Rich, Alex, and Anna. One day we did The Taste of Chicago. On Saturday, July 4, I saw my first game at Wrigley Field. We had seats in the lower level, in foul territory down the left field line; Rick Sutcliffe pitched well, and the Cubbies beat the Giants, 5-3. John’s friends made me feel welcome, a part of the gang. I’ve always been appreciative of that, and most grateful to John for thinking to include me. In some ways, the previous year had been a lonely one (so-so academically, too)—definitely an adjustment period. Around this time I was finally beginning to get my feet under me, and those days in the Windy City were a big help.
This was my Summer of Suzy V. I’d fallen for Suzanne Vega’s debut toward the end of 86, and purchased Solitude Standing at Record Service the day it came out in late April. I threw it on my turntable as soon as I got back to the dorm. The opening a cappella “Tom’s Diner” struck me as interesting in a good way—certainly somewhat different from what I’d heard previously—but what followed 100% blew me away. I don’t know if I truly processed the child abuse-themed lyrics on first listen, but before it was two minutes in, two thoughts began running through my head: This is a hit record. Likely a big one. And It’s really good, too. I started telling friends, both in IL and KY, about it.
Within weeks I asked Will to transfer Suzanne Vega and Solitude Standing to a cassette so that I could listen to them in the car. I took it everywhere with me for months. My prediction of chart success for “Luka” became reality of a sort on 6/6, when it modestly announced its presence on the Hot 100 at #93. It immediately began a steady ascent up the charts. Checking weekly progress in Billboard at the Urbana Free Library, just a block from our apartment, became practically an obsession across the rest of the summer. That day we were at Wrigley was the first time Casey played it, at #37. I couldn’t be too disappointed with a #3 peak toward the end of August, blocked from further advance by Madonna and Los Lobos. It’s remained a favorite across the years.
That holiday weekend in Chicago, I learned from John’s friends that Vega would be in town in about ten days. I was immediately interested in attending. Since the show would be mid-week, John didn’t feel he could attend, due to his teaching duties. I was taking a class that summer (French for Reading, to fulfill a foreign language requirement), but I was sure I could get by on short sleep for one night. I met Bill, Anna, and others in the Loop for dinner, and then we shuffled over to the Bismarck Theatre on Randolph (it’s now the Cadillac Palace Theatre) for the show. Our seats were in the upper balcony, maybe close to halfway back and towards the middle. There’s no record of what Vega and her band played that evening over at setlist.fm, but here’s one from the show she played in Cleveland just a few nights earlier. It sounds quite plausible to me, virtually everything from both albums, plus the exquisite “Left of Center.” My recollection is that she was awesome. It’s one of the few times I’ve bought a souvenir program at a concert.
Vega’s subsequent albums were always an automatic purchase. Among those, only 99.9° F wound up being elevated to my regular listening status, but many of the songs from across her career are still joys to hear.
I think it turned out to be a good, even an important, weekend for John as well. It wouldn’t be very long at all afterward that he and Anna, who was going to vet school at Urbana-Champaign, began dating.