Davis: 'Before I die' challenge leads to an unforgettable night


This passage from Peter Himmelman's book, "Let Me Out" inspired me to make one of the most outlandish requests of my life.

First, a word about the author. He's a rock star, maybe a bit shy of the Rock God variety. Still, he's made 20 albums, written scores for films and network TV shows and has been nominated for an Emmy and a Grammy. When I met him last fall, he mentioned matter-of-factly that he was offered a chance to tour with Prince. He passed because it would have involved playing Friday nights, and he's a practicing Jew who honors the Sabbath.

Himmelman was in Chicago to promote his book and his company, Big Muse, for Chicago Ideas Week, an amazing array of affordable conversations and labs with celebrities, major and minor, who talk about the creative and entrepreneurial process. My stepdaughter Mel is in charge of booking, and when she mentioned there was a special lab, dinner with Peter Himmelman, I begged her to get me in.

My interest in Himmelman is unorthodox, too. In the early '90s I had a passing knowledge of his songs that were getting radio play, most prominently, "Woman with the Strength of 10,000 Men." One morning, on my way to the office, he was a guest on WXRT FM. I don't think even played live from the studio that day, he just talked. Can't recall the topics, but I well remember thinking, "What an interesting guy. I should listen to some of his music." I went out and bought his CD (remember those?), "Skin." That year I hosted a Daily Herald Christmas party, and as one of Himmelman's album cuts played, I proclaimed to someday-to-be-fellow-columnist Jim Slusher, "Best album of 1994!" Remains one of my top 10 all-time faves.

Honestly, I kind of lost track of Himmelman's post-Skin career. It's been an interesting one. He continued to make albums, but you may have heard the internet has pretty much killed most musicians' chances of making money off their recordings. So, he began scoring music for such shows as "Judging Amy" and "Bones." But when the latter decided to, uh, go in a different direction, he found himself in his 50s and needing to reinvent himself. Hence, Big Muse and the book, which are all about unleashing one's creativity.

I got an autographed copy of the book that evening, but didn't get around to reading it until a few months later. "Before I Die ..." references an artist who painted the phrase on an abandoned building in New Orleans and left out chalk for scores of visitors to fill in the blanks with their dreams of choice. Himmelman challenges his readers to do the same and conquer the fears that keep their dreams from becoming a reality.

"This doesn't apply to me," I thought. "I've lived a pretty complete and happy life. I don't feel unfulfilled."

I've also been a proud member of garage bands for more than 50 years, on and off. Played all sorts of bars and, yes, parties in garages, but my claim to performing with a famous musician was playing the kazoo during the instrumental break in "Runaway," performed in the 1980s with Ronnie Rice (former lead vocalist for the New Colony Six) at the long-ago closed Lawrence of Oregano restaurant. So, maybe it was the guy issuing the challenge, but I answered the question.

"Before I die, I would like to ... play on stage with Peter Himmelman."

I had tickets to his Thursday night appearance at SPACE in Evanston, and I wrote him a pitch detailing all the compelling reasons he should have some guy - and his son Rob, also a guitar player - whose musical abilities he knew nothing of, to join him on stage to do a cover song (Sorry, that's we garage banders do). Mel was my emissary, and she gave me this report, "It's not a yes. But it's not a no!"

I figured that meant no, and as a longtime band guy I truly can appreciate the perils of letting strangers join the group on stage. (Without getting bogged down in the horrific details, I give you these two words: Elvis. Impersonator.)

On Thursday night, we (Rob, Mel and wife Margaret) sat in the front row as Himmelman took the stage. Before playing a note, he pointed at Rob. Look at that facial hair! That doesn't happen by itself. Come up on the stage, he demanded. At some point, I yelled out, "That's my boy!" I was commanded to join Rob onstage.

I know this sounds goofy, but our recollection of what happened next is imprecise. As a longtime pro, Himmelman has the rock star patter down to a science, and it seems there's a real stream of consciousness to it.

Asking the fam for a recap later, I got this: "I totally blacked out," said Mel, who nonetheless had the presence of mind to take photos.

"Bit of a blur for me as well ... he's kind of a rambler and some of his connections form awfully fast," said Rob, who nonetheless had the presence of mind to take his drink with him on stage.

"It was kind of an out-of-body experience," said Margaret, who nonetheless had the presence of mind to grab Himmelman's set list and a dropped guitar pick at the end of the night.

The consensus, though, was Himmelman said some things, perhaps poking some gentle fun at me, about seeing myself in Rob, the good looks I maybe used to have and other things that have passed me by. I think he threw the word "aura" in there somewhere. After the brief soliloquy, he said, "OK, go sit down."

Honestly, it was an incredibly nice thing for Peter to do, and two more times during a fantastic show, he made brief "father and son" references. An unforgettable evening.

And those of you who are still with me on this self-indulgent trip down recent memory lane, you might be wondering: What does this have to do with the newspaper business, which I faithfully write about in this space week after week?

Oh, nothing, really. Except for this: Thursday was a really good day on many fronts: I was very happy with our Page 1 Straight from the Source essay that came from social worker Mary Abbott and appeared on Friday's front page, and, frankly, the role I had in making it happen. Also, I secure the reporter to do our Thursday night interview on WBBM Newsradio 780. In this case it was staff writer Doug Graham, who rode the new "Joker" roller coaster at Great America, and gave a swell interview. Topping it all off was word, also in Friday's paper, that Naperville's Last Fling on Labor Day had booked Barenaked Ladies.

Ah, my favorite band.

This side of Peter Himmelman.

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