Not long after moving to Pullman I met Earl Pionke in my alley.
Big and burly with a rock hard belly, the guy looked like Hemingway with a long, white goatee. He wore a blue chauffeur’s cap and carried a yellow broom that he used to sweep up broken glass.
Earl said hello to everyone and liked to spout sarcastic half-truths, tell stupid jokes and brag that he once was a brawler.
I figured him for the neighborhood kook — my kind of guy. Of course, we became fast friends.
It wasn’t until later that my hippie neighbor told me that Pullman’s alleyway oddball was in fact the Earl of Old Town — an almost mythical hero who collected bribes for infamously corrupt politicians, stuffed ballot boxes and, most importantly, ran a legendary folk music tavern across from The Second City.
So, I invited ol’ Earl over for a chat.
He came with a bottle of black cherry vodka and a Steve Goodman album.
He poured us a drink and we talked about his life.
“So tell me …,” I said.
And Earl talked for hours.
From 1962 to 1984, he was the goofy purveyor of the Earl of Old Town — his namesake tavern with a tiny stage frequented by singer-songwriters Fred and Eddie Holstein, Betsy Redhead and John Prine. Bob Dylan, Bette Midler and John Denver popped in from time to time. John Belushi drank there. Jimmy Buffett came for the cheeseburgers.
Folk singer Steve Goodman was Earl’s favorite customer and close pal. Earl always bragged that Goodman first played his folk epic, “City of New Orleans” in the tavern’s weed smoke-filled backroom.
Earl opened a second Earl of Old Town in suburban Norridge, but the place didn't stick. And in 1984, he closed the Old Town tavern for good.
Eventually, Earl ended up in Pullman.
He bought himself a “castle” — the Landmark Inn at 111th and Langley — and moved in with his “fair lady,” Sharon Biggerstaff.
They lived together above the bar, which had shut down years before. Earl said he considered reopening the Landmark as a folk music stage, but it didn’t work out.
Earl died at home on Friday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
Over the last seven years, I didn’t see Earl as often as I would have liked.
When we did run into each other, Earl always asked about the stories I was writing, which usually ended with him telling me a few wild tales of his own.
Sometimes, Earl called to chat about stories he read in the papers. When I didn’t answer, he would crack wise on voicemail.
“This is the Journalism Committee for B.S., Lies and Innuendo,” he’d say. “As an esteemed member, we’d like you to make a donation to our fundraiser. I hope we can count on you.”
It was the kind of speech he’d give back when he was shaking down political contributions for late Ald. Paddy Bauler, who famously said, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” — a slogan Earl believed in wholeheartedly.
For Earl, corruption and injustice were more than the Chicago way to make a buck. They inspired the best folk music, which he always said would never die as long as America was at war and there was a “maniac in North Korea.”
He used to say that a really good song soothed our souls, captured our rage and taught us how to love. I think that sums up the Earl I know.
He was a drinker, fighter and lover who lived his life to the tune of good ol’ folk songs.
On Christmas every year, Earl would stop by to give me a bottle of homemade wine he called, “Uncle Louey’s Dagow Red” — a potent sangria-like concoction in a Paul Masson brandy bottle.
One dusty, unopened bottle, the cork saturated and sticky, still sits on my shelf.
I dusted it off and put on an album Earl gave me, “Chicago’s Earl of Old Town Café Pub, Entertainment Nightly Volume 2,” which marked this famous bar’s 20th year.
When the needle hit the record you could hear the ring of a cash register and Earl shouting to the stage, “Hey Charlie. I think the gang wants to hear 'Saloon'.”
“Yeah!” everyone in the bar cheered.
“OK, Earl,” folk singer Charlie Koster said.
“Saloon, Saloon,” Koster crooned with the gang and ol’ Earl singing along. “Can it be that all its glories are forgotten?”
Not a chance.