Blue-Collar Bard 

Ike Reilly has made the jump from anonymous citizen to working-class hero.

Before landing a record deal, Ike Reilly (center) worked - in a cemetery and as a hotel doorman.
  • Before landing a record deal, Ike Reilly (center) worked in a cemetery and as a hotel doorman.
The glut of reality television shows -- and the American Idol and America's Next Top Model phenomena in particular -- reintroduced folks to the idea that regular people can do extraordinary things. Nevertheless, long before Access Hollywood started transforming ordinary stiffs into celebrities worthy of US Weekly cover stories, Ike Reilly quietly made the jump from anonymous citizen to mainstream music-player.

As the story goes, the Libertyville, Illinois native played in a variety of Chicago-area bands in the late '80s and early '90s. He eventually bowed out of music and took a series of odd jobs -- most notably, manning the door at a Chicago hotel and working in a cemetery. But fate intervened, in the form of a Dust Brother -- half of the Beck/Beastie Boys production team who heard demos of some of his songs -- and the fortysomething father of four landed on a major label, Republic/Universal, which released his singular debut, Salesmen and Racists, in 2001.

Unlike the winners of the aforementioned talent shows, however, Reilly found that fortune did not lead to platinum riches or spottings on Gawker Stalker. In fact, after Racists found favor with journalists and fans of literate storytelling -- but few others -- his label dropped him.

Still, the beauty of Racists was discovering the way Reilly approached his tunes. The tales he spun demonstrated the shrewd observations and catchy phrases of the best storytellers -- especially Bob Dylan, to whom he drew both vocal and lyrical comparisons -- but were told through an amplified primal hybrid of punk, blues, and rock, conjuring the ghosts of countless musicians who didn't neatly fit into any genre or pigeonhole.

"I don't consider it a job," Reilly says of his music career in a phone interview, throughout which he continues to strum a guitar lazily. "I know it is a job. The creation of the music is one thing. [But] then to have to go sell it like a Tupperware salesman -- I have a real hard time doing that. But I have a lot of people around me telling me, 'Do it!'

"It is the lifeblood. Not just for the cash it generates in a transaction. It affects people when they bring that music home. To see people come and see you after they've been living with your record and they're so into it, you know; it creates a mystery for them, the way music did for me -- and movies and books did for me, too. I couldn't believe when I heard some records -- where did these guys come from? Where did these ideas come from? They're escapes for a lot of people."

When he was young, Reilly sought inspiration in the paradigm-shifting sounds of blues -- especially the legendary Chicago-area Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- and the non-virtuoso nature of punk bands, both genres that serve as templates for his raucous compositions.

"The punk movement was big to me, because it simplified things," he says. "I didn't come from a musical background at all; I didn't even really start playing guitar until I was into my 20s. The music I liked was the most simplistic. Now, as I've become, I guess, a musician, simplicity is the hardest thing to perfect.

"And then, of course, I like Dylan so much . . . [and] Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I like people that have their own vision and [are] not really part of a genre. When you hear 'em, you know it's them. I guess I would say I'm aspiring to get there."

Aspiring to -- and growing ever closer, in fact: His new album, Sparkle in the Finish, which is credited to the Ike Reilly Assassination and released on an independent label, is a more cohesive yet rawer outing than his debut, continuing to perfect Reilly's gritty alchemy of bar-band blood, sweat, and tears.

This doesn't mean that Reilly is the type of Midwest-bred songwriter who pens his songs based upon the quirky characters inhabiting Libertyville, where he still resides today. In fact, he notes that the biggest impact the town has on his music probably has to do with the way he tries "to not identify with it, [or] include it specifically in the music." This isn't Reilly snubbing his roots; mainly, he's asserting his desire to avoid becoming creatively insular or limited by his surroundings.

"Living here [in Libertyville] has made me really . . . have a desire to travel and have a desire to read more, and escape what my reality is here," he explains. "Which I think everybody should do, no matter where [they are], you know what I mean? You have to seek out interesting people, try to find the coolest struggles that people are going through.

"Historically speaking, our most famous resident [was] Marlon Brando; he went to high school here. [He] had a big effect on, I'd say, generations of troublemakers in town here. He was somebody doing something artistic, and I really identify with the movies too, a lot of them. It's not a town that reeks of art, really. But, you know, in every town -- I don't want to use the word seedy, but there's a lot of interesting people even in the most mundane places. There's a whole lot of people here that I find real interesting."

But Reilly shouldn't be mistaken for a small-town denizen who just stumbled accidentally into his notoriety. He's entirely confident about his talent and accordingly ambitious, mentioning several times his desire to play gigs in front of more people -- say, 5,000 fans a night -- with the self-assurance of someone who needs no external validation of his goals or dreams.

"I never viewed myself as a doorman. I was a musician that was working at the hotel," he says. "There isn't a career you can really say we modeled ours after, based on where I am, agewise -- although my views have not changed one bit since I was probably 15. I've gotten more informed, but my disdain for bullshit is the same, and my mistrust for institutions is the same," he says, laughing.

"I really am lucky, because I get to go all over the place. And I get to come back here to the safety of family and community that doesn't hate me."


More by Annie Zaleski


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