Column: It may be only rock ‘n’ roll but former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was back in the spotlight for a few songs at Martyrs’

Beer was flowing, the band was playing, people danced and in the audience sat a former governor of Illinois at a table with his wife, ready to rock ’n’ roll.

“I’m humbled to be asked to sing again with this band,” said Rod Blagojevich.

The band was The Drawers, a cover band that focuses on rock tunes from the past and some original material. Blagojevich has performed with this band before, for the first time at a private outdoor event shortly after his release from prison in 2020 and twice here at Martyrs’ music club.

The band was formed long ago by one of its current members, criminal defense attorney Leonard Goodman, who plays guitar and was Blagojevich’s appellate lawyer. It was the name of a band he had in college — the name a riff on The Doors — and was brought back to life a few years ago by Goodman and his childhood friend Bob Mamet, an acclaimed jazz performer and the younger brother of eminent playwright David Mamet.

Bob Mamet plays keyboards and says, “It’s just a lot of fun. Len and I grew up listening to classic rock and we were always jamming together. We went our different routes in college, he into law and me into jazz, but we have remained close. When he wanted to get a band together, I was very enthusiastic, and many of the other members are people we’ve known forever.”

The Drawers are, in addition to Mamet and Goodman, vocalists Lisa Zane, Lyndee Yamshon, Kitty Rothschild and Kate Nordine; Steve Doyle (guitar), Amy Anderson (violin), Bruce Krippner (acoustic bass) and John Blaha (drums). When he is in town, as he was for the Martyrs’ show, the band also includes Tony Mamet, Bob’s brother and a Los Angeles-based actor, producer and musician. The group is polished, tight and talented.

“This isn’t for me about politics, it’s about music and I am just getting to know Rod through the band,” Bob Mamet says. “He’s a nice and enthusiastic guy and he really does put on a good show.”

Blagojevich always has, no matter the venue or the medium, been drawn to the stage, the limelight, in the process becoming among the most popular and polarizing characters this state has ever known. Most of those polled in the large crowd at Martyrs’ were not aware that Blagojevich would be performing.

But they, as do most of you, likely know the details about him, which are, in short: He is one of the two sons of Serbian immigrants and raised on the Northwest Side, a Golden Gloves boxer, a lawyer, married to Patti (daughter of former 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell), prosecutor, state representative, elected governor in 2003 and 2006. He was impeached in 2009, appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010, and went on trial and was convicted on 17 charges (including wire fraud, attempted extortion and conspiracy to solicit bribes) and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

“I walked in there on March 15, 2012,” he says, of entering the Federal Correctional Institution-Englewood in Colorado. “I needed to focus on something other than my troubles. I was looking at being imprisoned for a long time.”

He started reading voraciously, notably and inspiringly he says, a book titled “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He also felt “it would be therapeutic to learn something new,” so he approached a convicted drug smuggler who he had heard once played guitar with The Doobie Brothers. He asked that prisoner, Ernie B., to teach him to play the guitar. As the man, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used in a 2016 Tribune story, said, the ex-governor had “a work ethic that was the best of any inmate I ever met.” He also admired Blagojevich’s way of singing Elvis Presley tunes, saying “he had all the moves.”

Well, of course he did. Blagojevich has been a lifelong fan of Elvis, a collector of such items as signed photos and a life-size statue. In 2010, a video of him singing Elvis’ “Treat Me Nice” at an outdoor event became popular on YouTube and earned him the No. 2 spot on a list of the Top 10 best Elvis impersonators, just behind Johnny Cash. The site noted that “The crowd, predictably, went wild — although not without some confusion.”

The inmates started a band, which they named “G Rod and the Jailhouse Rockers.” The members rehearsed in the prison’s music room. “We worked at music every day we could,” Blagojevich says. “It was able to take me out of the place where I was. It was a means of escape.”

The band was allowed to play for prisoners, notably at a GED graduation ceremony for 100 inmates. But then a July 4 performance in 2013 was, says Blagojevich, “The day the music died. Ernie was released. The band broke up.”

Blagojevich continued to practice guitar and devoted himself to tutoring inmates studying for the GED, teaching history and providing job interview counseling for soon-to-be-released inmates. He read. He jogged. He also began working with Goodman.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich jokes with the crowd between songs as he sings with The Drawers at Martyrs’ in Chicago on March 2, 2023. At left on guitar is defense attorney Len Goodman, who represented Blagojevich.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich jokes with the crowd between songs as he sings with The Drawers at Martyrs’ in Chicago on March 2, 2023. At left on guitar is defense attorney Len Goodman, who represented Blagojevich. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich sings with The Drawers on March 2, 2023.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich sings with The Drawers on March 2, 2023. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

“I represented him for seven years,” says Goodman, who for a time was co-owner of the Chicago Reader. “I had such high hopes that the appeals would work. We would talk every week and he’s such a positive guy. I would tell him that when he got out, I wanted him to sing with the band at the summer parties I have. The appeals did not work but when he was finally released he sang at the party and I must tell you, it was very emotional for me.”

Blagojevich was released from prison in February 2020, when then-President Donald Trump commuted his sentence. He had served more than seven years and returned to Chicago, to his wife Patti and their two daughters, Annie, now a sophomore in college, and Amy, who is in graduate school.

In May 2020, he was part of a Netflix series titled “Trial by Media,” about which the Tribune’s Michael Phillips wrote, “While the episode offers no new information, the payoff comes in its elegant distillation and synthesis of complex true-life narratives dripping with hubris and weird legal reversals.”

Then came a four-part 2021 series on Hulu called “Being Blago,” which Phillips called “improbably interesting television.”

“Those years were me trying to piece my life together and earn money to support my family,” Blagojevich says.

For a short time he tried the podcast world with ”Lightning Rod Today,” but it proved too time-consuming. He signed up with Cameo, a website on which users pay for personalized video messages from celebrities, and that has proven worthwhile. “I just did four more yesterday,” he told me earlier this week. “I have almost 1,000 five-star ratings and I like doing it. I get $100 for every 30-second message but I almost always record at much greater length.” He gives speeches, consults for clients he is reluctant to name.

And he sings, no charge.

The Drawers played on, artfully offering such tunes as “Because the Night” and “Somebody to Love” … and then it was time.

After a stirring guitar solo, Goodman spoke into the microphone, saying, “We’d like to bring up an old friend. He’s going to sing Elvis.”

Blagojevich hopped onto the stage, wearing black slacks and a blue shirt, the collar of which he turned up as he said, “I’m just a former governor of Illinois who went to jail … so don’t be cruel” and off he went into that 1956 Elvis hit.

Nearly half of those in the large audience held their phones aloft to capture images and sound. He finished singing. The crowd clapped and hooted. One would-be wit shouted, “Sing ‘Jailhouse Rock,’” and Blagojevich said, “I’m sick of that … I lived it for eight years,” and he was off on his next and final song, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.”

He can sing and the crowd held cameras up again. The band, which is planning more concerts this summer, played more songs, ending the night with “Lake Shore Drive” and “Piano Man.” The featured act, The Rolling Clones, would soon be on stage. The former governor walked back to his table and his smiling wife and his unpredictable but undeniably frenetic future.

Ino Saves New

via rk2’s favorite articles on Inoreader

March 15, 2023 at 07:00AM

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