Joe Cassidy’s sister, Frances Macklin, with a wall display at the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast that includes a portrait of Cassidy by Paul Elledge Credit: Courtesy Frances Macklin

Since 2005 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Last month I traveled to Belfast to attend the Northern Ireland Music Prize, because this year’s ceremony included the debut of the Joe Cassidy Chrysalis Award—named for the late Belfast-born artist who’d become one of Chicago’s most important and beloved musical transplants. Cassidy, who led the group Butterfly Child, was an old friend of mine as well as a globe-trotting songwriter, performer, and producer. I’d been invited to join the board of judges.

On my trip I saw some of the famous faerie trees of Ireland, which are believed to act as doorways between the realm of the fae folk and our world. Farmers plow around these trees and protect their trunks with rocks, and lore abounds of motorway construction being delayed because a faerie tree was in the way—in one case by ten years. Cutting down a faerie tree is supposed to bring a lifetime of bad luck, and even after one falls on its own, mere mortals risk the consequences of its intense enchantment if they clear it away. Cassidy clearly also has this sort of residual magic: even though he’s left the physical sphere, he continues to have an artistic life that brings people together.

I wrote a long and passionate eulogy for Joe Cassidy after he died at age 51 on July 15, 2021. Front and center in that tribute was the humbling amount of energy he’d put into uplifting other people—including me. In the early 2000s, I fell into Joe’s orbit of pals and collaborators, and I was privileged to call him my friend for 20 years. Cassidy produced several albums for my old bands, including Plastic Crimewave Sound, and other people in his orbit often contributed to the sessions.

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It’s hard to choose a favorite Butterfly Child release, but the 1991 EP Tooth Fairy is pretty great.

Cassidy was only a few years my senior, but by the time he arrived in Chicago in 1997, Butterfly Child had released music through several high-profile UK labels—so I was keenly aware of his epic songwriting skills and post-shoegaze indie-pop symphonies. After his band Assassins started playing live in early 2002, I was fortunate to open shows and do artwork for them. They might’ve been Cassidy’s breakout project, if they hadn’t suffered from the sort of major-label woes that have killed so many great groups.

It’s given me some solace to be drawn deeper into Cassidy’s world since his passing, and it meant so much to me to be involved with an award given in his honor.

The Joe Cassidy Chrysalis Award arose in part from a memorial tribute to Cassidy called Hear in Heaven, held on August 28, 2022, at Metro—coincidentally where I’d met Cassidy at a Primal Scream show in 2000. Many of Cassidy’s friends, bandmates, and accomplices performed his songs or their own (my band kicked out a Plastic Crimewave Sound tune that Cassidy had produced in 2003). 

a black-and-white photo with a man in focus (and in shadow) in the back upper left and a young girl wearing angel wings blurred out in the lower right foreground
Joe Cassidy as Butterfly Child Credit: Steve Double

Metro proprietor Joe Shanahan had come up with the idea for the tribute, and Cassidy’s dear friend and former roommate Sarah Marmor actualized and produced it. She met Cassidy in 2004 and hosted his 40th and 50th birthday parties; he lived in her house from 2018 till 2021. She’s not a fellow musician, though—if you’ve heard of her, it’s probably because she’s a partner in the largest certified women-owned law firm in Chicago, Scharf Banks Marmor. Hear in Heaven was hosted by Joe Lindsay, a Cassidy cohort from Belfast, and by local DJ, writer, musician, and Metro staffer Jill Hopkins.

At the same time, Cassidy’s sister, Frances Macklin (a force of nature like her brother), was incubating a tribute of her own in Northern Ireland. “I’d been working on a legacy project to honor Joe’s memory, music, and friends since Joe died,” she says. “In June 2022, my brother Michael and I met with Charlotte Dryden at the Oh Yeah center in Belfast. Amongst other ideas, we wanted to present an award to support local musicians in Joe’s name at the Northern Island Music Prize in 2023.” 

That’s where Cassidy’s Chicago connections enter the picture. “When I told Joe Shanahan and Sarah Marmor about our planned award, they offered the proceeds of the Hear in Heaven event to fund it,” Macklin continues. “Since then, the ongoing incredible support and involvement of Shanahan, Marmor, and Lindsay has been hugely important in giving the Joe Cassidy Chrysalis Award its ‘wings.’ This award has become the most meaningful coming together of all Joe’s family and friends, and I am so thankful to everyone involved.”

Many of the performers from Hear in Heaven joined the panel of judges for the Chrysalis Award, including Justin Webb of the Webb Brothers, Greg Corner of Kill Hannah, former members of Butterfly Child and Assassins, and of course me. The award proposed to give 3,000 pounds (about 3,800 dollars) to an emerging artist making original music in Northern Ireland.

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The video of the Assassins song “Guilty,” from the 2006 album You Will Changed Us

The award ceremony was held on November 15, 2023, as part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize event at Ulster Hall (where several folks told me a little band called Led Zeppelin had premiered “Stairway to Heaven”). I’d been invited to come to Belfast for the occasion by the Oh Yeah Music Centre, which produces the NI Music Prize every year (and runs an amazing venue and museum). Tourism Northern Ireland pitched in to cover flights and accommodations, making it a proposal I couldn’t turn down—especially since everyone gave me the freedom to write only what I wanted to write.

a show poster for Assassins with a black background and stark white illustrations of the five members' faces in a neat row
Artwork by the author for Joe Cassidy’s band Assassins Credit: Steve Krakow

The chance to judge and report on the award was more than just a gig. To me the prize came to symbolize a new beginning born of Cassidy’s physical demise. To experience this alongside his peers, family, and old cohorts was a precious gift.

Cassidy would’ve loved the bands that applied for the Chrysalis Award. They played gothy new wave, psychedelia, stripped-down singer-songwriter fare, and shoegaze, so it was no easy task picking a winner. The honor went to young three-piece Chalk, whose intense, subversive sound combines all the aforementioned genres—they even remind me a touch of Assassins. 

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Chalk’s video for “Asking,” which appeared on the May 2023 EP Conditions

Chalk also nabbed the NI Music Prize trophy for best live band. Before the announcement, they played a couple songs that demonstrated why: front man Ross Cullen rode the band’s build-and-release dynamics with nuanced ferocity, and drummer Luke Niblock played regimented postpunk beats with a skill and vehemence I rarely witness. Think of a postgrunge Bauhaus, perhaps, or “Berghain-rock blended with techno-punk,” as Cullen described Chalk’s music in a February interview. It’ll be interesting to watch Chalk evolve as they use the prize money to further their musical journey—I’ve heard from Macklin that they’ll be using it to support an upcoming run of U.S. dates.

Sarah Marmor and Aaron Miller of Assassins join presenters Gemma Bradley and David O’Reilly onstage at the Northern Ireland Music Prize for the presentation of the Joe Cassidy Chrysalis Award. Credit: Steve Krakow

BBC Radio Ulster broadcast the awards live. This year’s Legend Award went to elder statesman singer-songwriter and ace guitar player Paul Brady, and all the younger artists who took the stage gave me insight into the current Belfast scene. I enjoyed Problem Patterns’ giddy, Kathleen Hanna–approved riot-grrrl punk as much as I dug Conor Mallon’s fusion of traditional uilleann pipe music and prog rock. Mallon was also up for the Northern Ireland Music Prize’s flagship album award, and I’d been asked just before my trip to join the judge’s panel for that honor too. I didn’t feel qualified (especially seeing the list of BBC broadcasters, TV personalities, promoters, journalists, and others who were already on the panel), but I relented and agreed when the organizers told me their goal was an outsider’s perspective.

The dozen judges for the album prize ended up sharing a private room at Belfast club the Limelight, where the organizers delivered pizza and let us hash it out. They were kind enough to indulge me with a heretical vegan pizza, and they brought another judge a keto-friendly salad. I’d been anxious, but the judging turned out to be a lot of fun.

Ultimately we agreed that Arborist’s An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros had the ambition, breakout potential, and nuanced songwriting to win. Its Americana-influenced sound had me imagining Lambchop’s quirky, rustic music produced with the icy spaciousness of a Talk Talk record. The album was recorded at Spacebomb Studio in Richmond, Virginia, where my partner Sara Gossett lived for a decade before moving to Chicago—and she turns out to know the owners of the studio.

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This song appears on the 2023 Arborist release that won the Northern Ireland Music Prize album award.

Throughout my visit, I kept seeing connections between Chicago and Belfast. Joe Cassidy connected Chicago and Belfast, after all, and the NI Music Prize screened a video montage of Cassidy’s musical life that had been meticulously assembled by Cassidy’s brother, Michael. Not much video exists from Cassidy’s early days, but the older clips had been lovingly restored, linking Joe the shaggy Belfast boy to Joe the confident Chicago electro-pop wizard.

The night before the awards, I was standing outside a meet and greet for Cassidy’s family and friends at the American Bar, near the docks in the Sailortown area of Belfast. Gary Green, who’s married to Cassidy’s cousin Kate Holohan, came over to share stories. “I used to ditch school to see young Joe play around the corner at places like the Rotterdam,” he said, pointing down the block. “This whole area was a dangerous mess then, but we didn’t care—we were kids and there for the music.” 

Today that neighborhood is touristy looking and barely populated, so it was hard to imagine what Green described. But whether he meant to or not, he’d summed up something important about Cassidy’s musical magnetism and the history of his hometown.

The author with original Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell in Belfast Credit: Sara Gossett

Nearly everyone I encountered in Belfast talked of the Troubles, a conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s till the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. To oversimplify, the conflict pitted loyalists, unionists, and Protestants on one side against nationalists, republicans, and Catholics on the other. The complex ethnic and sectarian dimensions of the Troubles are difficult for an outsider to fully grasp. 

I had the good fortune on this trip to conduct an interview with original Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell (it’ll run in Ugly Things magazine). He told me about returning to a formerly peaceful Belfast after the Troubles began and encountering a grim scene of tanks, machine guns, and explosions. The mournful eloquence of his description really stuck with me.

Our city likewise has a worldwide reputation as dangerous—no matter where you go, when you mention Chicago, someone will mention Al Capone. Chicago’s modern-day violence makes it a right-wing punching bag, even though in 2022 its rate of gun homicide was lower than in Saint Louis, Birmingham, New Orleans, Baltimore, and dozens of other cities. In Belfast, house-by-house divisions between loyalists and republicans could make it dangerous to walk down the wrong block—the same sort of warning many Chicagoans have received (especially from suburbanites or people who don’t live here).

A wall of childhood photos at Joe Cassidy’s mother’s home Credit: Steve Krakow

Chicago and Belfast also share a bit of a “second city” complex. I started the Secret History of Chicago Music in part to push back against pop-cultural bias toward artists from New York or Los Angeles. I felt a similar underdog passion in Belfast, which often gets short shrift next to Dublin. Once Cassidy got to Chicago, I think, he discovered a scene that resonated with the dark-horse history and philosophy of his hometown, and he found his working-class people yet again. Of course, it helped that he was a friendly, charismatic, talented, and down-to-earth guy.

I got extra perspective on Cassidy and his life by meeting his mother, a kind soul and busy community organizer, who showed me his childhood home and primary school. Both are located in a neighborhood in the shadow of Cavehill—a low mountain whose impressive cliff faces include a feature called “Napoleon’s Nose” (look it up) and whose pastoral slopes are home to the current Belfast Castle, where Cassidy used to hang out. The Cavehill area was also where Cassidy shot his first music videos, according to his mother. His grave is next to his father’s in Carnmoney Cemetery, northeast of the mountain. Going there was an experience I need to keep for myself.

long rows of gravestones cast dramatic diagonal shadows on lush green turf
Carnmoney Cemetery in Belfast, where Joe Cassidy and his father are buried side by side Credit: Steve Krakow

Cassidy’s childhood friend Tony McKeown, an early bandmate in Butterfly Child, showed me spots where he and Cassidy used to get into trouble as teenagers. They’d hop the fence into the Belfast Botanic Gardens, and because the fence would be coated with a nondrying paint as a deterrent, they’d wear easily cleaned PVC goth pants. In the alley behind a bar called Lavery’s, they’d sneak drinks when they were still underage. 

a regal brick university building of obvious advanced age, with a tower decorated with spires over the main gate
Queen’s University in Belfast, where Butterfly Child used to play in the student union Credit: Steve Krakow

McKeown also showed me some of the extant venues where they’d played as Butterfly Child, including the flourishing but grimy Limelight and the majestic Queen’s University (where the band gigged in the student union). We visited the Crown Bar, a beautiful but crowded establishment beloved by Cassidy and seemingly everyone else. When we finally got a booth, McKeown realized that it was his old pal’s former favorite spot.

Mutual friends spotted a very out-of-season butterfly inside Belfast Castle, another magical coincidence seemingly summoned by the memory of a man who’d named his band Butterfly Child. I started to see Cassidy as epitomizing the best aspects of Ireland: he seemed connected to the phantasmagoric world of the faerie folk (to me Joe always resembled an elf or sprite), and he was a big-city survivor who could make great art no matter how rough the conditions.

an elaborately carved wooden bar decorated with stained glass and tiles, dimly lit and crowded
The beloved Crown Bar in Belfast, which has operated under that name since 1885. Credit: Steve Krakow

When my old band Plastic Crimewave Sound made our second excessive double concept album, No Wonderland, in the winter of 2005 and ’06, we tracked it with Cassidy in an unheated warehouse off Lake Street in February. Thankfully we relocated to his much more comfortable abode near Augusta and Ashland to add overdubs and mix, but as we were leaving after a session, Cassidy noticed that a stray bullet had gone through his front door and embedded itself in the stairs. We all looked at one another, agreed that we were glad to have been elsewhere at the fateful instant, and then finished our days. We all go on with our lives and try to make our cities a little better along the way.

Cassidy got by for years with music as his sole source of income, and in the early aughts he directly inspired me to hustle and go freelance. That choice has let me live and breathe my passions 100 percent. It’s been difficult, but it’s also infinitely rewarding—if I hadn’t taken that path in my “career,” I never would’ve found my way to this trip. 

It’s not yet a given that the Joe Cassidy Chrysalis Award will continue, but I hope it can keep on supporting and encouraging musicians the same way Joe encouraged me, so that they can commit to the same path I did. Joe Cassidy would love to know that he’s having this continuing influence, and throughout my adventure in Belfast, I couldn’t help but feel his impish presence grinning down at me from above.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.