I might have written more than anyone about James “Jack Rabbit” Martin, and I still know almost nothing about him.
Yet when we conceived of this series – The Run-Out, a long, long listicle and look back through some of our favorite and most quintessentially Chicago-esque records in house music history – Jack Rabbit’s records were right at the top of the list. I don’t know if there would be much interest in doing this if we didn’t start with Jack Rabbit. It certainly wouldn’t be as credible without him.
The music aside, there is no figure as steeped in folklore as James “Jack Rabbit” Martin. I’ve initiated countless conversations about him over the years with people who were there and should have known him, but the leads never lead anywhere. When we published our cover story on Jack Rabbit in 5 Mag some years ago, we didn’t even have any photos until the last minute, when Steve Melvage told me he’d met James several times and asked his brother to forward a couple of pictures he’d taken. As far as I know these are the only two known photos of James Martin that have been published, though others certainly must exist.
It’s like Robert Johnson or Billy The Kid. The mystery has engulfed the person; the legend takes over in the absence of facts. There are no archived interviews. There’s no known video. There are only a couple of low resolution photos. And the music.
There Are Dreams And There Is Escape is James Martin’s chief musical legacy at this point. Bootlegged beyond belief, it was self-published – the first and only record on Martin’s Yoton Records. The title, I believe, may have come from the slogan printed on of one of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s signature “Frankie Says…” t-shirts. The four tracks on it were almost totally ignored in Chicago as far as I’ve been able to reconstruct, which may have been as far as Yoton and Martin were able to distribute them.
Thirty years later the sound explodes off the wax. “Rabbit Trax I” and “Rabbit Trax II” have a violent intensity that no other acid record had come close to capturing (Armando would debut on wax the same year with “Land of Confusion”). Other Chicago producers had worked the 303 by this point, but who worked it like Jack Rabbit? This is the sort of dark music we now reference in relation to “hardware” – the suite of Roland machine instruments that Jack Rabbit chained together like few had done before. It would be years before anyone tapped into the raw but intricately arranged sounds of the four tracks on this record. They’re still playable, without any apologies or context, to this day.
I frequently correspond with other members of the unofficial Chicago Underground Jack Rabbit Appreciation Society, but I received one email a few months ago that startled me.
“I just want to say thank you for the article you wrote about James in 5 Magazine,” it read. “I knew him but more of a personal level. I was his girlfriend. That June weekend when he died so suddenly, he was DJing a prom after popping the question. He gave me the weekend to think it over but I never got the chance to give the answer.
“It was a brief romantic period. Yet I’m glad his music still lives on. That makes me happy.”
I’ve spoken to people who have known James Martin, but none of them well. The author of this email – Tanya Vega – was the first. And I tried, the best I could, not to reply back immediately, demanding answers to the list of 50 questions all of us have about this phenomenal, mysterious musician.
Tanya told me that she and James attended Morgan Park high school, with James graduating in 1985 and her in 1987. Their paths crossed but she was “never really interested in him. Flash forward to January 1990, our paths cross again at IHoP at 94th and Western.
“He and his manager would frequent the IHoP restaurant where I worked every Friday night. For him it was love at first site. For me it wasn’t. I found him to be an annoying pest ordering pancakes and flirting… Boy could he work a nerve. Yet it worked.”
Tanya and James dated for four or five months before he “popped the question on Father’s Day weekend. And you know the rest. He died while DJing a prom. I was the last to know about his death.”
Tanya said that James had not prepared a will before he died (at an age when most people do not have a will). His grandmother was the executor to his music rights but Tanya doesn’t know if she’s alive today or if any of his relatives are aware of the musical legacy bequeathed to them. “Somewhere in my storage locker, I think I still have an autographed copy of ‘Another Vicious Lie’ in which he addresses me as ‘the future Mrs James Jack Rabbit Martin,'” she told me.
“He was a visionary during the early stages of Chicago’s House Music scene. I had the rare and extreme chance to hang out at the studio with other House music greats like Frankie Knuckles and Doug Banks (former Chicago DJ who promoted House music and up’n’coming musicians like James). I was there when he recorded my song… not knowing at the time it would be my song and the last one he would ever record before his death.”
Tanya writes a blog called SouthSide On The Town and I hope she puts more of her thoughts and memories of James Martin down. Because aside from that great music, it’s a fascinating story. How many artists appear out of nowhere, a fully-formed, mature talent that releases several tunes that approach the top of their genre and do it as good as anyone has ever done it – and then disappear, struck down in the prime of life? It’s like the tale of an acid house Rimbaud, and the miracle is that we are lucky enough to preserve a few copies, stored in the back of crates and in attics and storage lockers to save the music from oblivion.
The Run-Out: James “Jack Rabbit” Martin: There Are Dreams & There Is Escape / YOTON