When Don Mclane set out to form a band, he didn’t do it to make a quick buck. He did it because he really believed in what he was singing about. The iconic Chicago-based retailer was driven by a profound sadness that surrounded the loss of his son Cole’s unearthly good looks. As a result, Don began to write songs expressing his grief.
It was originally thought that the ballads would be a stretch for Mclane, who is known for his hilarious stand-up routines. What happened instead was that listeners flocked to his songs, empathizing with his struggles as a father and wanting to join in on his heartfelt wails.
The songs became anthems for supporters of the singer, who would show up at football games in Chicago wearing Cole’s photo on his T-shirt. The shirts sold out, and the fans would often sing along with Don’s heartbreaking ballads. This is how “Empty Chairs” came to be, a tune steeped in both pain and beauty, a mantra and a memorial to one of pop culture’s great tragedies.
The song has since become as famous as the man himself. When Don’s band played it live, crowds of fans would often sing along word for word. A sing-a-long might even break out at a Wicker Park bar mitzvah every Tuesday night, which is when Don Mclane & The Band play the song these days. Perhaps surprisingly, they sometimes play it twice a week, as it seems to strike a chord in the hearts of their loyal listeners.
The stark contrast between the upbeat bouncy tune “Empty Chairs” and the crushing reality of Cole’s death couldn’t be more apparent. In some songs, Don confronts his grief head on, while in others, he hides his sorrow behind a smile. “Empty Chairs” is both—an ode to his son’s short, sweet life and a blistering indictment of the medical establishment that could never make sense of what happened.
Cole was only 23 years old when he died, and he had already made his career as a model, performing gigs on the side. He had recently returned from a stint in France and was about to start an acting career in Chicago. At the time of his death, he was working on a web series with Chance The Rapper called The Almighty Cornbread. There’s also an app called GV Life that lets you relive Cole’s last moments through a series of short videos. You can also listen to interviews with Don Mclane on the subject of his son on the Hidden Gems Podcast. These various tributes to Cole and his accomplishments are a stark reminder that the young man from North Carolina who was just starting to scratch the surface of his potential will be missed immensely.
a message of hope
Don Mclane wrote “Empty Chairs” after watching his son’s photo on the cover of Parade magazine. At the time of Cole’s death, he was inspired by a news story about a man who had lived his entire life in an empty chair, smiling graciously at passersby as he ate lunch. The song is a call to action: “I don’t wanna live in a world where the best things in life are free / But until they realise that not all deaths are created equal, we’ve got to keep on fighting,” Mclane writes in the song. “Let’s keep on keeping on. Let’s make some noise.”
It’s a fitting conclusion for a song that was originally written as a lament. However, in light of everything that has happened, “Empty Chairs” has become more than just another lament—it’s a message of hope. Although the world may feel dark now, Cole’s legacy still lives on in his father’s music.