Chi Lives: How Rich Seng found his true calling | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: How Rich Seng found his true calling 

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Rich Seng started producing and distributing the monthly series of free CD and DVD compilations now called Cherry Bomb when he moved to Chicago in 1995. But for eight of the nine years since then Seng's business has been stalled--by God.

Seng dropped out of a business program at Miami University in Ohio to come here and issue what he originally called Music of Chicago Free CD. The economics go like this: musicians who agree to be included retain all rights to their work but don't get paid. The cost of pressing 1,300 copies is covered by advertisers--mostly Wicker Park and Lincoln Park businesses--who get 50 copies stamped with their own logo to pass out to customers. Twenty advertisers, at $79 apiece per monthly installment, does the trick. The CDs have featured bands such as Bumpus, Evil Beaver, TRS-80, Super 8 Cum Shot (now called Jinx Titanic), and the M's.

"I went to Chicago thinking I was going to be an instant success, just like anybody does when they move to the big city," Seng says. "But it was a real slow, uphill thing. I just wasn't achieving the success I had first dreamed. I just felt empty inside. And that's when I found Jesus."

He found him in a confessional at Saint Helen's Church in Bucktown. As he told the priest about his sins of commission and omission, Seng says, "this feeling of rolling thunder started building and building and building. It was like electricity."

After he left the church "it was as if fire started rolling through my body....I was holding my hand up to the light to see if I could see the flames. I felt like I was purged." Seng decided to stop making CDs and become a priest.

In 1998 he returned to Miami: to join the seminary he had to complete a four-year degree. In his spare time he studied the Bible. "I really romanticized the story of Exodus," he says. "I saw the foundation of Israel in 1948 as a fulfillment of scriptural prophecy. I thought the Palestinians just had to suck it up and deal with the Jews' being God's chosen people, entitled to the promised land." He thought a good place to announce this belief would be at a booth set up in the student union by some Muslim students to celebrate Muslim Awareness Week. "I told these Muslims that they were a rung below the Jews," he says. "I thought I was going to get killed." Instead the Muslim kids tried to educate him and gave him a copy of the Koran.

In 2000, with a bachelor's degree in marketing, Seng joined the seminary at Saint Meinrad's, an order of Benedictine monks in southern Indiana. But at a messianic synagogue where he'd gone to convert people to Catholicism, he met a girl. "She just melted my heart," Seng says. When he went to Omaha to attend Creighton University, a Jesuit school, for more spiritual education, he couldn't stop thinking about her. "She stirred up so many feelings about wanting to have a relationship and get married and have a family," he says. "By the end of the semester I knew I was leaving the seminary." That relationship ended a month after Seng moved home to Toledo, but, he says, "she was a catalyst for making me realize I'm not called to the priesthood."

He returned to Chicago in October 2000 with a plan to become an advertising copywriter. He wasn't called to that either. "All I had was just puns: 'Campbell's Soup is souper!' I thought that was the wittiest, cleverest shit," he says. He answered an ad in the Reader's Housing to Share section posted by John Gilun, an 88-year-old Catholic who'd been thrown into a Nazi concentration camp for providing a fake baptismal certificate to a Jew trying to escape from Lithuania. "He had a PhD in psychology and a master's in theology," says Seng. The four years they spent together in their Ukrainian Village apartment "was like seminary. We would talk about the idea of God and Christ on earth."

They also talked about Israel and Palestine. Through these conversations, Seng says, "he convinced me to see the Palestinian point of view." Seng felt he needed to do penance for having promulgated his old beliefs.

He went back to making free compilations, but with some changes. First, he renamed the series Cherry Bomb. Second, Cherry Bomb started producing DVDs of independent films, with an emphasis on work that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For one installment Seng asked the Chicago Palestinian Film Festival and the Israeli consulate for three shorts and a documentary, respectively. James Longley's Gaza Strip, a movie set in the occupied territory, is on another disc. Filmmakers get the same deal as bands--no pay and they keep all the rights.

The first Cherry Bomb DVD contains a video for Seng's song "Dear Palestine," set between Dan and Paul Dinello's Shock Asylum and a short of Katherine Chronis performing naked headstands in public. Seng's first line is "Mr. Spielberg, have I got a movie for you." Split-screen footage of the Israeli occupation and Nazi Germany appears as Seng sings the chorus: "You know you know how it feels / We're chosen too."

"I've done damage," Seng says. "I've done so much to hurt Palestinians and their cause. I've told Palestinians that they were wrong for wanting their own land. As a Catholic, when you hear someone's cry, you're supposed to act."

Cherry Bomb's fourth DVD will premiere at the Abbey Pub on Saturday, July 10. It features music videos from Tortoise, Friends Forever, and Loki, plus excerpts from Mohamed Bakri's Jenin, Jenin and Marty Rosenbluth's Jerusalem, an Occupation Set in Stone and two short films: Palestinian Terror by Nimrod Shanit and Footbol Palestina by Chicago filmmaker Marcello Pina. Local hip-hop groups Garden Music, Farm Crew, the Network, and Dynamic Vibrations will perform during intermission. Doors open at 8 PM, and you must be at least 21.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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