"I'd rather die in a gutter in New York than keep living the way I've been living here."
Not a day goes by where Thax Douglas isn't stopped on the street and told he's a Chicago icon, even a legend, by adoring fans of the live music community. An indie-poet laureate of sorts, the Santa Claus look-a-like has been "concentrating spontaneity" before the sets of more than 800 local and touring bands for the last decade, shooting soft-spoken ghosts of densely packed emotion and metaphor, blending audience and artist in one cohesive current.
But lift the jolly veil and the comforting drawl and out emerges a Bukowski-sans-booze, a member of the starving literati: Thax begging for bus fares home. Thax donating plasma twice a week to pay rent. Thax reciting poems to fans for $5 to pay for dinner. Thax homeless.
Poor? No doubt. Self-conscious? If referring to parts of his non-band oeuvre as typical "Thax Dougles, fucked-up gay loser" confessionals counts. But what he feels he is most definitely not is appreciated:
"I am very tired, but am sick with paranoia and humiliation...Chicago has never understood a very simple truth—my poetry is good. Bands let me read my poems for them because they are good poems. The band enjoys them. The audience enjoys them. Everybody is happy."
If it were any other poet, you'd be right to take these words with a grain of salt. But Thax has paid his dues. A product of the birth of Slam back in the height of the Green Mill days, rhetorical whit bleeds from his bitter pores. He's read for crowds of three or four in clubs that don't exist anymore like South Loop's Edge of the Looking Glass, Wrigleyville's Lower Links and the tragically hip Lounge Ax.
It was here, back in '97, that he sputtered his first-band related verse, as a "lark." The small audience responded in ways that satisfied Thax's chaotic but purposeful needs. So he tapped the vein and never looked backed, except "over his shoulder, to New York."
If you've seen a local show in the past nine years, odds are that you've heard him recite. He saunters in, unannounced, like a shadow at virtually any club he pleases. Even if you only hear one out of 10 words, you'll understand, which is why artists embrace him—Billy Corgan's crusaded for his recognition in interviews, local garage rockers frame anything he pens for them and Wilco has even tried to employ him, attempting to take him on tour as their own pet poet.
Thax, unannounced as ever, read two poems for two different bands at this year's Lollapalooza: before local whistler/violinist Andrew Bird and before at least 40,000 people prior to The Flaming Lips, his largest audience to date.
Yet you remind him of all this and he'll immediately dub himself an "outsider" who's merely "tolerated," never supported, never paid. "If Chicago likes me so much, then how come I've had a dozen people talk about putting a book or a record of mine out and not once follow up on it?"
So it makes sense that a third poem was given to a New Yorker who came to see Lollapalooza: "intelligence crusts the side of the dry drainage ditch, but when the rains come the intelligence won't slide drop by drop into the river but'll cling to the side like a brain to its skull."
And so NYC continues to loom, and he's set to head east in early September: "Unfortunately, Chicago has always been kind of small-minded...if you do something weird, people will just look at you with suspicion and stuff like that, but in New York they have nothing to compare themselves to."
When further asked about his impact on the Chicago music community, Thax draws analogies of working for a company that applauds your hard work, tells you to "keep up it up" as often they can all whilst "you're getting paid less than everyone else and working in a closet...so I'm moving to another company."
In the beginning:
The first time I read at an open mic in Chicago...was the day after my 30th birthday. A famous local poet named David Hernandez was really nice and sat me down and said, "I like this poem" for "these reasons" and the audience liked it. That was my something. The first time I read a poem for a band was kind of nondescript; I didn't know if it would be anything more than a novelty.
After a gig:
Well...watch the show. Usually if I'm feeling genial, I'll just hang out. I don't do this too much anymore, but there have been many times in the past where I've got to two or even three shows a night. Well now, because I am like a celebrity in Chicago, people always come up to me at shows. So basically I just stand and people just come up to me all night.
What's cool in your neck of the woods:
Humboldt Park, itself, is very beautiful. It was designed by the guy who did Central Park in New York. And the so-called 'Paseo Boricua' has improved a big deal in the five years I've been there. It's definitely not a ghetto anymore. There are actually shops and things and clubs on that strip. So it's still not exactly a good neighborhood, but it's definitely not the rancid hellhole it was five years ago.
Here I am, rock you like a:
Fresh from the woodshop:
I'm recording a CD in New York; that's the reason I'm going. And I want to do this band. I want to do projects and fun things. What I do best is read for bands, but I want to do more.
Coming soon to a stage near you:
Aug. 24 at Subterranean, the 27th at Lilly's, and the 31st at the Hideout. My last public readings—bands willing—is going to be Mudhoney and Radio Birdman at the Double Door.