Chrissie Dickinson died with too much writing yet to do and too much art yet to create

Chrissie Dickinson was a multimedia artist and award-winning country and rock ‘n’ roll critic whose work appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, Newcity, the Boston Phoenix, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. She died on May 19, 2022, from heart failure. She is remembered here by friend and creative partner Cynthia Hammond Jenkins.

It was Halloween 1980. I was 18 and a freshman at Indiana University.

I was dolled up in a pink vintage minidress with diagonal mirrors sewn all over it and a pair of suede ankle boots, both of which my new friend Angi had loaned me. She had just painted a colorful, pop-art flower over my eye, transforming me into 60s supermodel Twiggy. She was going as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.  

I’d met Angi a few days before at the IU student union grill, where she was flipping burgers in an old-school hairnet. In a southern Indiana twang, she asked me who my favorite band was. I told her it was a tie between the Stones and the Who. Angi immediately invited me to join her that Friday for my first off-campus party. 

When we arrived at that art-school shindig, the crowd was spilling onto the front porch and sidewalk. Kids were smoking, drinking keg beer, and jamming to “Mirror in the Bathroom” by the English Beat. Some were dressed for Halloween, but others were simply letting their freak flags fly. Angi pointed out a girl across the room—someone she said she couldn’t wait for me to meet. 

Chris Dickinson.

Chris was talking to a friend. I watched her hands dance around with a lit cigarette as she told a story. She threw her head back and laughed.

She was wearing a black leather jacket, straight-leg jeans, and Beatle boots. Her hair was feathered and blondish. She looked like Suzi Quatro, the Detroit rock bassist who’d played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days.

I smiled as she crossed the room toward me. Her first words were, “Why are you wearing my dress?” As I scrambled to make sense of her question, she added, “Are those my boots too?” 

I looked down at my outfit, embarrassed. “I didn’t know,” I said lamely.

She turned to Angi, who mumbled a long-winded excuse—she thought it’d been another friend, Julie, who’d left the clothes in Angi’s dorm room. “No, Angi,” Chris answered. “That was me. It’s OK. Just return them tomorrow.” She walked away in a plume of cigarette smoke.

The next Sunday, Angi invited me over to her room, knowing that most of the other dorm kids would be off campus for dinner. She invited Chris too, saying she wanted to make things right with us because we were destined to be great friends. 

Chris showed up with a smile and a milk crate filled with albums. We laughed about the Twiggy dress fiasco.

She played us the Clash’s London Calling and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. She dropped the needle onto the first albums by Elvis Costello, U2, and the Police. She pulled out Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, and the Temptations. She turned me onto Loretta, Dolly, Tammy, and George. But it was Patti Smith’s poetic, punk Horses that sealed the deal. 

I had to pee and raced down the hall, where I discovered the primo acoustics of the ancient dorm’s bathroom. I could hear Smith’s “Elegie” playing from the stereo in Angi’s room, and I joined its lament, my voice echoing from the tiled loo out into the empty corridor.

By the time I got back, Chris and Angi had decided that we were going to be a band. Chris on guitar, Angi on drums, and me on bass. A power trio. No worries that I had never picked up a bass. We’d figure it out. 

We called ourselves the Altered Boys. Our first gig was in spring 1981. We banged out a set of four originals and two covers—“Not Fade Away” and a punked-up version of “Love Me Do.” Angi had a bleach-blonde Mohawk and hammered away on a patched-up floor tom and a metal sink turned upside down. I was playing a borrowed Höfner bass. Chris rocked her 1965 Music Man. Our passion was contagious, and the audience clapped and hollered for an encore. We were hooked.

Sally’s Dream: Cynthia Jenkins (aka Cyn Hammond), Chrissie Dickinson, Emily Jackson (upper right), and Jenny Davis (lower right) Credit: Courtesy Cynthia Jenkins

We tumbled hand in hand into the verdant music scene in Bloomington, Indiana. Altered Boys morphed into Glass Factory, and by 1983 Chris and I had found a long-term musical home in the band Sally’s Dream, with Jenny Davis on keyboards and Emily Jackson on drums. 

We toured the midwest and the south in Stella, our faithful step van, playing the legendary rock ’n’ roll dives of the day. The stories that Stella could tell . . . 

At the same time, Chris began her career as a journalist in Bloomington, the land of Hoagy Carmichael and Ernie Pyle. She started writing about music at IU’s newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student

Her editor there, Karla Fisk, remembers her well. “As a guitarist and songwriter, Chris understood rock and punk from the inside out,” Fisk says. “In 1982, Richard and Linda Thompson came to Bloomington. Chris’s review of that performance was one of her first reviews ever. She soared from there, becoming a music writer of great perception and range.”

Sally’s Dream opens for Romeo Void at Jake’s Nightclub in Bloomington, Indiana, in the mid-80s. Left: Chrissie Dickinson; right: Chrissie Dickinson and Cynthia Jenkins.
Credit: Jeff Mathews

In 1987, Sally’s Dream packed up our instruments and moved to Boston to seek our fame in the grungy rock clubs that surrounded Fenway Park and Cambridge. After four adventurous years, Chris and I returned to the midwest and settled in Chicago. We had ill and aging family members and wanted to be closer to home. Sally’s Dream never officially broke up; life just got in the way.

In the mid-90s, Chris was recruited as the pop music critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, covering all genres of popular music. Then Nashville called her name. 

A Chrissie Dickinson original from 2018

In the 90s, the Country Music Hall of Fame was a funky little barn on Music Row, bursting at the seams with history. It also housed the office of the Journal of Country Music, an influential magazine for which Chris wrote and served as editor for five years. In 2000, the journal published her pioneering article “Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music.” 

“She was an absolutely fearless writer and ahead of her time in her groundbreaking coverage of women artists, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folk in country music,” says Lauren Bufferd, former director of the library and collections at the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

Chris returned to Chicago in September 2001 and began using the byline “Chrissie Dickinson.” She continued writing her smart and insightful articles for the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, TONEAudio Magazine, and the Washington Post, among others. 

But most important, Chrissie was a passionate artist, constantly creating her own lyrically bold and brilliant music, haunting and evocative videos, and hilarious and heartbreaking characters. Some of her videos are available on YouTube. My favorite is “The Endless Summer (of Joni Mitchell).”

Chrissie Dickinson’s “The Endless Summer (of Joni Mitchell),” which she posted in 2013

In the heart of the pandemic, Chrissie and I started playing around with an essay that she had written called “The Far Side of Forty.” Using shared docs on the Internet, we wrote a novel called Girl Rock Reunion, about lifelong friendships between former bandmates. We were on our final draft when Chrissie’s illness took hold.

Chrissie died of heart failure on May 19 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with her two surviving sisters, Lore and Marie, at her side. She leaves behind hundreds of friends, colleagues, and readers longing for what she still could’ve created as a writer and artist.

Chrissie Dickinson recorded this song at her home with Cynthia Jenkins in summer 2009, when Jenkins still lived in Chicago and the two of them got together every Saturday to make music.

I think about those early days and how lucky our circle has been to have Chrissie for four decades of friendship, music, and laughter. I was madly in love with her from that first Halloween in 1980. I thought we would grow old together—two aging punk ladies, still rockin’ after all these years.

Chrissie Dickinson and Cynthia Jenkins on the lakefront near Hollywood Beach in 2013 Credit: Matt JenkinsRead More

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