No Left Turn Deserves Another

After the Christmas break I was ready to begin my final semester in high school.  Friday arrived none too soon.  The entire student body was fired up for the big conference basketball game that evening between us, Beloit Catholic, and the conference leaders,  Marengo High School.  The afternoon pep rally provided a welcome reprieve from classwork.  A reprieve from the bitter cold that gripped the city would have been nice too.  Weather reports pointed to a modest break, predicting cloudy skies with temperatures ranging from 5 to 15 degrees for that January 5th, 1968.  Anything was better than the face-numbing, subzero wind chills of the previous few days.

Though loyal to my school, a lack of enthusiasm for the game could be measured in direct proportion to the excitement for my band, the No Left Turns, having been hired to play for the post-game dance.  It was hard to tell whether some students shared my excitement for the dance rather than for the game itself.  That was doubtful, with all the cheering and clapping between stirring speeches from Coach and one or two of his starting players.   The rally wound down after we all belted out the fight song, accompanied by a raucous pep band.  Someone, probably our principal, mentioned the dance during his closing remarks, much to my relief.

The No Left Turns had been practicing a few new songs and were restless to begin the new year with a gig worthy of showing them off.  We loaded up the trailer with our gear the night before, holding out the more cold-sensitive guitars and drums.  A Farfisa organ, various amplifiers, pedals, cymbals, lights and our P.A. system all were in there.  The P.A. speaker columns were recently acquired in a horse-trade with a competing band.  Whether the “new” ones were better than the speakers I traded away was an issue on which we didn’t all agree, and probably wouldn’t to this day.  The speakers we bartered were mounted in boxes that my Dad and I constructed when the band first got together two years before.  I’m pretty sure Tony was in agreement with me about the transaction.

The basketball game was wild.  Our 6-3 cagers won it in a hard-fought battle, defeating the 9-1 conference favorite by a score of 76-60.  As the post-game celebration diminished, individual members of the No Left Turns, along with a classmate, Tom, who helped haul and set up equipment, arrived separately to unpack the trailer.  Jim and I were the only band members from Beloit Catholic.  Cousin Mike attended Beloit Turner.  Bruce and Tony were from Beloit Memorial.  At that time, it was considered diverse just to hang out with guys from different schools.

We quickly emptied the trailer so it could be moved to a legal parking spot.  I asked a responsible looking adult where the band should set up.  He pointed to one end of the gym floor under a net and replied, “There.”  So, there is where we set up.
“We’ll have plenty of room to spread out.”  I said sarcastically.
“That’s for sure.” Mike chuckled.
Bruce discovered the gym floor was quite slippery.  “I’m not sure I can keep my drums from sliding around,” he said.
“Where’s your rug?” I questioned, making no attempt to hide my exasperation.
“Probably in your basement where I left it.  I’ll find one somewhere,” he snapped back, wandering off.
A few minutes later, Bruce returned with Tom, carrying a rolled up rug which they unfurled on the floor. They reset Bruce’s drums on it.
“Where’d you find that?”  Tony paused for a second and continued, “Is that the rug from between the double doors?”
“Yeah.”
“Cool!  It’s perfect!”

We played for the dance, pouring our hearts into every song we’d ever learned — The Letter, Incense and Peppermint, Come On Down to My Boat Baby, Light My Fire, and on and on — including a new one by Eric Burdon and the Animals, Sky Pilot.  Ours was a shaky arrangement for the song, without the dramatic sound effects and bagpipes.  But our stripped down version worked when we played it for our last number.  It was a pretty good gig with lots of kids dancing.

What  precipitated our breakup eludes me to this day.  I can’t help but think it had something to do with an allegation leveled against us.  The rug that Bruce borrowed from between the gym’s vestibule doors turned up missing.  The Beloit police had been called.  A uniformed officer showed up at my parents’ house Saturday afternoon.  He wanted to talk with me and “take a look” inside the trailer that was now parked back in the garage.  Having nothing to hide, I opened up the trailer doors.  He asked me to move a couple of things aside while he aimed his flashlight, but no rug was found.

After the squad car drove off, my mother continued the interrogation, embarrassed about a police car in the driveway.  I phoned Bruce to ask him about the rug.  “What rug?” he snarled.
“The one you used for your drums last night, dumb ass!”  Already I was seething.
“I left it on the gym floor.  Why?  Is someone pissed I didn’t put it back?”
“Not exactly.  The cops were just here searching the trailer ’cause they think we stole it!”

Our conversation deteriorated into typical teenage arguing and obscenities. I got fed up and shouted into the handset that the No Left Turns were washed up.  I was breaking up the band.  Maybe it was the police searching our trailer.  Maybe it was the unrelenting cold weather.  Maybe it was a mistake.

The following week, equipment in the trailer was returned to each rightful owner. The trailer was conveyed to cousin Mike’s house.  The P.A. system eventually was sold and proceeds were distributed among the original four band members.  The whole thing hurt me deeply. These guys were my friends and family.  A touch of teenage angst was evident in my letter to our agent, dated the following Monday.

The photos and posters I requested were not returned.  The Aldrich Junior High gig already contracted for February 10th was fulfilled nicely by the Jaywalkers, our local competition for the previous two years.  Ironically, I’d recently joined them as lead singer.  Perhaps even more ironically, Bruce had joined as their new drummer.  That’s me in the fringed boots, slapping a tambourine, probably singing I Second That Emotion or Spooky.  And that’s Bruce directly in front of the hypno-wheel.  The others were Mike (not my cousin), Dean and Stan.  There is no rug in the picture.

Dalton Youth Center, Summer 1968

The tension was palpable as I stepped out of my dad’s Studebaker and walked toward the double glass doors of a building that looked more like a church than a teen center.  I’d already flicked my Winston cigarette butt through a rolled down window before pulling into the parking lot.  The sheet of paper I was clutching, a partially completed, standard musicians contract, caught the warm summer breeze and fluttered in my hand.  The guy in the brown suit and coke bottle glasses standing inside those doors was director of the Dalton Youth Center.  His name has been erased from my memory, probably the better for both of us.  We hadn’t yet agreed on a dollar amount for the gig he wanted my band to play there.

It was “my band,” because I was the one with a pad of blank contract forms.  We called ourselves “Volume One,” named after a bookstore in Piper’s Alley off of Wells Street in Old Town Chicago.

When the No Left Turns broke up just after the new year, I joined rival band, the Jaywalkers, along with Bruce, our drummer.  The Jaywalkers had just lost their drummer, Dick, to our other rival band, the Marauders.  Dick had also been the lead vocalist.  Suddenly we’d all become free agents.  So Bruce drove the tempo and I took over the vocals for the Jaywalkers.

The new Jaywalkers played some pretty good gigs before two things happened.  Stan, the lead guitarist, left to join the Marauders.  They were certainly living up to their name.  About that time I became more involved in the high school musical, West Side Story, so play rehearsals were impinging on band rehearsals .  Upon announcing I couldn’t play any gigs over the next few weekends, Bruce threw down his sticks and abruptly quit, exclaiming “This is bullshit!”  That was the end of the Jaywalkers and the last I ever saw of Bruce.

With the musical and graduation finally behind us, ex-Jaywalkers Mike, Dean and I wanted to play more music during that summer.  We recruited ex-No Left Turns Tony, for lead guitar.  Then another classmate named Joe, who played trumpet and could sing harmony joined up.  Searching for a drummer, we learned that Dick (remember Dick?)  had been “released” by the Marauders.  So we asked him to join us.  Now we numbered six, and four of us could alternate singing lead and harmonizing.  Mike played rhythm guitar and organ, Dean played bass.  Two Joes now fronted the band.  And thus, Volume One was born.  We played four gigs that summer.  Dalton Youth Center was the first.

The brown-suited guy met me inside the double doors.  We exchanged greetings and he invited me to his office where I sat across from him.  Leaning back in his executive chair, he put his brown wingtips up on the desk, crossed at the ankles, and explained the gig.  He wanted a “break band” to play between sets of the One-Eyed Jacks from Chicago, the night’s headliners.  I told him we needed a hundred and fifty dollars to play three break sets.  He laughed and counter-offered an even hundred.  Thinking out loud, I said, “Look, we have six guys in the band and that’s not even twenty bucks apiece.”
“Oh,” he grinned.  “If you want twenty each, then let’s make it a hundred and twenty bucks.’
Realizing my next counter offer of thirty dollars each times six would be more than what I’d initially proposed, I quickly agreed.

We shook hands, completed the contract and signed it.  I kept the original and handed him the carbon copy.  Leading me out of his office and into the dance hall, he pointed up to the balcony and said, “That’s where you guys will set up and play from.”  Having recently graduated from high school, I was compelled to correct his grammar and advise him not to end a sentence with a preposition, but I held my tongue.  It was a bit discouraging to discover we’d be lugging our gear up a flight of steps and setting up there just to play three, twenty-minute sets.  On the other hand, we didn’t know many songs.  So it all evened out.

On the night of the gig, we arrived early to carry our stuff up to the balcony and tune up.  Then we watched as the One-Eyed Jacks set up and tuned.  Before kicking it off, they invited us to compare set lists.  After a brief discussion they instructed us not to play Purple Haze and Sunshine of Your Love because those were songs in their sets.  Reluctantly, and a bit annoyed, we agreed.

The One-Eyed Jacks were pretty damned good that night.  They even played Good Vibrations, the only band other than the Beach Boys I’ve ever heard play that song to this day.  But their versions of Purple Haze and Sunshine of Your Love were no better than ours.  That was the message our seriously bruised egos were transmitting to our ears.  Given that we probably would never share another venue with the One-Eyed Jacks, we sneaked both songs into our last set, finishing with a blistering Purple Haze, overladen with fuzz tone and wah-wah effects.

Volume One never heard any more from the One-Eyed Jacks.  We broke down our equipment, carried it out to our vehicles and convoyed over to the Hollywood Drive-In to spend some of that twenty dollars each on fish and chips dinners.  By the way, the guy in the brown suit thought we were “pretty good.”  So did we.

Masters of Mardi Gras

To most folks, New Orleans naturally comes to mind as Mardi Gras approaches.  To be immersed in a carnival of such profound excess must be something undoubtedly special.  However, I confess to having only experienced that celebration vicariously as a viewer of the nightly news whenever Fat Tuesday rolls around each year.  The New Year’s Eve that Sylvia and I celebrated in New Orleans with some friends years ago was great fun, but probably nothing like my imagined Mardi Gras parade where drunken revelers tear at their clothes and flail around in a Bacchanalian snake dance, strings of brightly colored beads flying everywhere.

For a while in the early sixties, my hometown Catholic high school would sponsor a “Mardi Gras” annual fundraiser.  Beloit Catholic High bore little resemblance to New Orleans.  The school gym, decorated in festive ribbons of crepe paper, featured an array of booths, each containing a cheesy carnival game like one you might have played at a country fair in the previous century.  Food and baked goods were both sold and offered up as prizes.  I remember parading around in a “cakewalk,” dutifully attempting to win some homemade sweets, confident my quarter entrance fee would positively impact the bottom line of the high school I’d be entering one day.

Mardi Gras wouldn’t be worth a hill of baked goods without music.  But it wasn’t the saints marching in for this event.  (Actual saints marching into a Catholic school would have been very cool, though.)  Instead, I heard a band playing rock ‘n’ roll as I wandered down the hallway toward a large classroom that served as the school’s sole study hall.  I wanted to be in that number.  The room was packed, not with wild Bacchanalian revelers, but with mostly tame high school kids doing the twist.  I paused for a second in the doorway, nodded to a couple of classmates from my grade school, then strode briskly to the front of a makeshift bandstand on which stood four guys in matching ties and vests, totally rocking out on two guitars, a bass, and drums.

MicsMasters0008

They were Mic’s Masters and they were deep into an instrumental number I didn’t recognize.  Three of them were swinging their guitar necks back and forth in time to the music.  All at once, they broke into synchronized footwork that got them moving left to right and back again, wailing guitars swinging along with them.  It was an impressive display of showmanship and one to which I immediately aspired.

I stood there mesmerized, listening to their set that included a spot-on cover of the Rivingtons’ Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and some instrumentals that showed off their guitar chops.  Mic’s Masters were the first rock ‘n’ roll band from Beloit to record in a small, private studio north of town and release a 45-rpm record containing two instrumentals.  The A-side was a cover of Sandstorm by Johnny & the Hurricanes.  The B-side, though, was their own composition, Rock-n-Round.  Either would conjure up images of surfing in California over carousing in Louisiana.

I won’t be parading through the French Quarter, carousing to the music of Professor Longhair or C.J. Chenier on Fat Tuesday this year either.  Even if I was, the image of twisting to Mic’s Masters at that small-town fundraiser would remain indelibly etched in my mind.  Beads or no beads, Bourbon Street or Beloit, you can bet I’ll let the good times (rock and) roll on Mardi Gras.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

(Special thanks to Jean Voss for graciously providing the Mic’s Masters memorabilia.  Click on “Rock-n-Round” above for the full effect.)

Fly Jefferson Airplane…

A founding member of Jefferson Airplane made his final departure today.  I was a high school junior when Somebody to Love and White Rabbit hit the airwaves.  My band, the No Left Turns, never learned either song, probably because we harbored some deep-seated machismo over whether a guy could/should sing a tune sung by a girl.  This, in spite of the fact we once tried learning Stop! In the Name of Love by the Supremes.  We gave up on that one and likely swore off any further attempt to learn “girl group” songs.  That was mistake number one.  In the meantime, our rivals, the Jaywalkers, did a fine job on White Rabbit which made me quite envious.  Their drummer sang it, a guy whose voice could reach notes several steps higher than mine.

Jefferson Airplane’s songs stuck with me through college.  Some of their music, particularly their Volunteers album, was an inspiration to those of us who openly opposed the Vietnam War and the wholesale conscription of friends my age to fight it.  Guess I was just one of those “effete college snobs” referred to by Spiro Agnew.

I had two chances to hear Jefferson Airplane perform in concert.  The first was practically in my backyard at Beloit College in July 1967.  My excuse for missing it?   I have none that I can recall.  It was a Sunday night show.  What could I possibly have been doing otherwise on a Sunday night in Beloit?  That was mistake number two.

670624 RkfdRegRep AirplaneThe next time I had an opportunity to hear the Airplane live was sometime in the fog of my senior year in college when I thought better of joining a carload of friends planning a roadtrip to another state to see them.  I use the term “planning” quite loosely here.  I’d already experienced one of those loosely planned roadtrips to a rock festival in Wisconsin prior to that.  So I had firsthand knowledge coupled with some practical experience concerning such roadtrips.  I declined this invitation.  Mistake number three?  Perhaps.

It ends up that I never saw one of my favorite bands in concert.  Just a couple of years ago I discovered my Jefferson Airplane vinyl albums were no longer playable.  I replaced them with iTunes downloads and still listen to them to this day.  In fact, I’m listening to Crown of Creation right now.  Bon voyage, Paul Kantner.  I hope you reached your final destination peacefully.

The Trailer

The No Left Turns traveled in style.  Well, perhaps not at first.  As the amount of equipment we lugged around continued to grow, it became harder and harder to get all of it to gigs in fewer than three cars.  Unlike today’s SUVs, pickup trucks and crossovers, the typical family car back then was a sedan.  And while station wagons were popular, Dad traded in our family’s DeSoto wagon, a purple and white two-tone beast, for a shiny blue Pontiac Catalina sedan.  Not inclined to entrust the new family car to me and my bandmates, I was offered the use of his work car, a Studebaker Lark.  It was a cream white, two-door model with a standard shift on the column.  Cool!  I could just about fit all my stuff and half of my cousin’s stuff into it.  The other half of Mike’s gear and everything else were left to fate.

Sometime around the fall of ’66, Mike’s dad acquired a trailer frame.  It started out as just a plain old steel frame with two wheels and a tongue, but Uncle Bob transformed that hunk of metal and rubber into one magnificent hauling vehicle.  First, he constructed a plywood enclosure to mount on it, three solid sides and a roof.  He included a set of hinged double doors on the back end that opened out for loading, and closed with a hasp and padlock to keep them shut while hauling gear around.  Then he painted the entire thing jet black.

But he didn’t stop there.  To personalize it for us, Uncle Bob stenciled the band’s name on both sides, surrounded by our individual names.  He spiffed it up even more by painting a baby blue guitar under the band’s name.  We proudly hauled our gear in that trailer, pulling it behind my Dad’s Studebaker.  No photos of the trailer were ever taken and even if pictures did exist, they’ve long been lost.  That unfortunate circumstance in mind, I’m left to reconstruct a semblance of the trailer’s stenciling from memory:NLT Trailer compCarrying around our band equipment for miles on weekends, that trailer allowed all of us to travel in one car, with me at the wheel.  It wasn’t unusual to see it parked at the Hollywood Drive-In late at night after returning from a gig.  There we’d order fish and chips dinners and pay with cash from the night’s receipts.  The car would get a little crowded after Jim joined the band, but there was plenty of room in the trailer for his Farfisa organ.  Uncle Bob made him feel welcomed by stenciling his name between mine and Mike’s.

On the first day of summer recess, Mike, Tony and I drove the empty trailer away to check the tire pressure and add some air.  On the way back to my house we heard a strange rattling sound.  Pulling over to investigate, we found a few loosened bolts that secured the box to its frame.  Not having a wrench on us and fearing the trailer would shake apart, we unhitched it.  Tony and Mike would stay behind while I’d go home to retrieve a couple of wrenches.  It remains unclear exactly who did the unhitching, but driving off, I heard both Mike and Tony yelling “Stop! Stop!” while I watched them frantically waving their arms in the rear view mirror.  I braked, but it was too late.  Someone had forgotten to disconnect the electrical harness to the trailer’s rear lights.  About twenty feet of wire now lay on the pavement between the car’s hitch and the trailer’s tongue.  The ensuing argument lasted only seconds as Tony picked up the wires.  Radio volume turned up to drown out further rattling, we returned the trailer to Mike’s house where, sometime after Tony and I escaped, Mike was left to explain the day’s events to his dad.

The trailer was back in service by our next gig and we never spoke another word about the incident.  The No Left Turns even gave up trying to learn the song, Stop! In the Name of Love, three of us cracking up at every attempt, leaving Jim and Bruce to wonder just what was so damned funny.

 

 

The Fourth of July

It’s the middle of January and it’s miserably cold.  The dog shakes himself head-to-tail, then runs under the table when I approach with his leash.  Finally, I coax him into going outside with me because I know, and he knows, there is some business to which he must attend before calling it a night.  It’s miserably cold.

Business accomplished and back inside, I’m in full “inspiration mode,” trying desperately to come up with something, anything, to write about.  I scroll through pages of half-written paragraphs comprising stories I’ve started, but abandoned for lack of anything resembling a point, a direction, a potential audience.  All I can think about is summer and warmer weather.  Lounging in the sun, cool drink in hand, warm breeze lifting the sweet sound of guitars and drums through the humid air…

It’s July 4, 2015 and I’d been invited to a backyard party in a neighboring community.  “Bring your guitar,” said Kris.  “The stage will be set up with even more gear than we had last year.”  I arrived as a couple of millennials holding acoustic guitar and electric bass were attacking the microphones. They sang of joy and anger, love awakened and love lost.  Only some songs I recognized. One, an Elvis Costello tune.  “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself.  “I can’t contribute that brand of new wave angst.”

The duo left the stage and were replaced by some guys closer to my age.  Kris asked me to join them so I uncased my guitar and set about plugging in, placing my binder of songs on an unused music stand.  Making our introductions, we tuned our instruments and decided to warm up with a little rock and roll.  These guys all knew each other and played together often as a garage band.  I felt like an interloper until they asked if I could sing a Tom Petty song from their repertoire, Running Down a Dream.  One of them handed me the lyrics.  “Let’s rock,” I said.  And with that, we kicked off a forty-five minute set.

The four of us, lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, and me on vocals, did two more numbers from their song list, Spirit’s I Got a Line On You and ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man.  I would have been lost without their lyric sheets.  One of them pointed to my guitar, which I’d surreptitiously placed on its stand just before we started.  He suggested I pick it up and we play some selections together from my binder.  Paging through it, he was happy to see chord symbols accompanying the lyrics.  By the time I’d strapped on my guitar, the guys had already selected some tunes, beginning with the Beatles’ Eight Days a Week.  This was followed by Roy Orbison’s Oh Pretty Woman, and Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath.  We were warmed up now.

A pair of challenging tunes by Pink Floyd, Brain Damage and Eclipse, and I thought we were finished.  It was then our host, Kris, joined us on electric piano.  “Let’s do Moondance,” he shouted.  Kris and I had played Van Morrison’s Moondance together on a couple of previous occasions and it was one of our favorites.  The band jammed on it for about ten minutes, with piano and guitar trading riffs between verses.  Finally, we closed the set with Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309/Jenny.  What a way to celebrate a Fourth of July afternoon!

It’s the middle of January and it’s miserably cold.  But I can almost feel that warm breeze lifting the sweet sound of guitars and drums through the humid air…

150704 Da Band
Hopefully, the sign behind me was not indicative of our performance.

 

Light My Fire

The phonograph needle glided into the last track on side one.  Up until that point, I was more engrossed in writing an essay for American History class than listening to the music, as good as it was.  The sudden snap of a snare drum, like the sharp report of a starter pistol, and my head jerked up toward the record player.  A flurry of organ notes, the product of assuredly nimble fingers on the keyboard, tumbled over each other, filling every shadowy space in my softly lit bedroom.  A brief vamp, and a baritone voice crooned, “You know that it would be untrue; you know that I would be a liar…”   Fully distracted from any meaningful progress on homework, I hung on every lyric, trying to wrap my head around musical patterns and song structure until my entire psyche was ablaze.

“We’ve got to get an organist,” I solemnly spoke aloud to myself.  “No way Tony can do that on a guitar.”

The song trailed off as I walked down the hallway to my parents bedroom, where the only semi-private telephone in the house was located.  I stretched the wall cord out into the hall as far as it would go and sat down on the floor to dial up Tony.

“Whaddya think about getting an organ player for the band?” I proposed.

Tony chuckled in that familiar way that typically preceded a crude comeback.  But instead he replied, “Yeah.  That would definitely help us.  We could learn some different stuff.”

“There’s a guy I know whose kid brother is supposed to be pretty good,” I said.  “Never been in a band before.”

At our next rehearsal, Tony and I decided, with Mike and Bruce in full agreement, to find an organist.  The No Left Turns had recently won the Beloit Jaycees “Battle of the Bands” and would have no problem recruiting more talent.

Jim was only a high school freshman.  The rest of us were seasoned sophomores and juniors, so we weren’t quite sure how the age gap would work out.  Nonetheless, we invited him to audition with us on Saturday afternoon.  I had to drive over to his house, just outside of town, to pick him up along with his Farfisa organ.  Jim carried it out and put it in the back of my dad’s Studebaker.

“Do you have an amp?” I asked, trying to hide my initial disappointment as he climbed into the passenger seat.

“Well, not yet, but my dad said I could get one if I got into a band,” he explained. “Can I plug into one of yours today?”

I could hardly say no, considering he’d already shut the door behind him.  All the way to my house we listened to the radio, talking with excitement about songs we liked and knew how to play — or wished we could play.  When he said he’d figured out the organ part to Light My Fire, I nearly drove up over an embankment, responding “Really?”

Arriving at my house, we unloaded the Farfisa, set it up in the basement with the rest of our gear, made our introductions and jumped right into the audition.  True to his word, once Jim had set up his Farfisa and plugged into Mike’s amp, he warmed up by playing the opening riff to Light My Fire. Mouths agape, we positioned ourselves with our instruments and worked on learning the song as Jim broke it down for us.

The sudden snap of Bruce’s snare drum, like the sharp report of a starter pistol, and our heads turned to Jim who deftly  played a flurry of organ notes, fingers tumbling over each other, reverberating off the basement walls. A brief vamp, and I crooned into the microphone, “You know that it would be untrue; you know that I would be a liar…”

nlt2
No Left Turns: Bruce, Joe, Jim, Tony and Mike (Spring 1967)