Devilish tale behind West Loop bar
Did Dave Neuhauser test the legend of the crossroads?
01/13/2010 10:00 PM
Dave Neuhauser, the owner of the West Loop’s CrossRoads Bar and Grill, seems entranced when he shares the story behind his business, transported to a place I imagine to be a lot like the murals that serve as the bar’s backdrop.
The reason is clear – he’s been dreaming about this place for a long time.
Dave spent his formative years working for others in the bar business, knowing one day he would operate his own place
He ended up in liquor sales and distribution. It was a job he didn’t like, but one he felt he needed. One day, a hard-to-detect tumor was found in his chest during a doctor’s visit. He left the office knowing he wasn’t going to die in sales.
So Dave packed a bag, picked up a friend and started on what he calls his pilgrimage to the impoverished town of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
He was headed to the crossroads, the place where blues great Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil so he could make magic on a guitar, according to legend. Many music greats and blues aficionados have made this trip, and Dave told me the belief that anyone who goes to the crossroads can make a deal with the devil persists.
When Dave arrived, he met actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman to talk about Freeman’s concept for the Delta’s revitalization. The actor, along with two local businessmen, is attempting to spark area’s rebirth by using the history of blues music and capitalizing on the visitors who arrive from around the world on pilgrimages and visits. Dave left inspired.
But what happened on the outskirts of town truly sealed his fate.
He stopped at the gas station nestled at Highway 61 and Highway 49, the famous crossroads, to ask a common question: “Is this the place where I can sell my soul to the devil?” The attendant feigned amusement and Dave got back into his car.
As he drove onto the highway going about 80 mph, he had a seizure — something he had never experienced before and hasn’t since — that rendered him incapacitated behind the wheel. His friend grabbed the wheel and somehow managed to bring the car to a stop. Dave says it is a miracle that he didn’t die that day.
Had he tested the legend of the crossroads?
Perhaps. In any case, Dave returned to Chicago compelled to celebrate the legend and the migration of music from the South to Chicago. Thus CrossRoads opened in late 2008 at 1120 W. Madison amid continued struggles with the bar’s previous ownership and the city, a few of which continue today.
Dave’s mission is to make a go of the CrossRoads, so that he can send financial contributions to Clarksdale. He has a special place in his heart for the music, the people and the struggles of the Mississippi Delta.
CrossRoads has a built-in boxcar bar and five authentic whiskey barrels hold up the large tables in the window; each honors a place or person of the Delta. The music doesn’t sound as authentic as the bar looks. You’ll hear plenty of pop. But Dave explains that every music genre derives from the blues, including rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop. I think I would prefer a bit more of the blues and blue grass to keep me in the southern mood he’s tried so hard to set.
Even so, my softball team made it a meet-up place before and after our games this summer, and Bulls and Blackhawks fans find it a great place to be on game nights. There are ribs and catfish on the menu with pecan pie for desert, and a beer called Mississippi Mud served in a quart jug.
One thing I fear is that Dave gets so caught up in the legend and mission that the business side of CrossRoads will suffer. When I was leaving the bar on a recent night, Dave quickly grabbed two magazines featuring articles on Clarksdale’s blues rebirth. He was entranced again. He said he’d been working double shifts all weekend and hadn’t slept much.
Dave might have sold his soul to the devil, but his heart, and let’s hope his investment, is in the right place.