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…

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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…”

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

A New Lead Guitarist

Another flashback of my garage band, the No Left Turns…

“I can’t be in the band any more.”

Carl dropped this bombshell on me during a telephone conversation one cold November evening.  For a split second my “What, are you crazy?” alarm was triggered.  However, I maintained composure and calmly asked him why.  The details of his response remain as hazy as the cold night mist I noticed staring out the kitchen window.  It was transforming before my eyes into a flurry of snowflakes shimmering in the moonbeams, and grew heavier as I watched.  “Great,” I thought.  “Now I’ll be shoveling snow in the morning.”  I was good neither at enjoying lovely winter imagery, nor at listening to Carl.  Instead, I obsessed about the overnight weather outlook.  Oh.  And what in hell the No Left Turns will do without a lead guitarist who can sing harmony!  Guess it was time to hit the snow covered pavement and find a replacement.

Tony attended the public high school across the river.  Bruce and I were listening to his band at our favorite hangout, the Pop House.  Tony was their bass guitarist, but apparently he had other ambitions.  In a conversation after the gig, he agreed to help us audition guitar players for the No Left Turns.  Tony was acquainted with Bruce, our drummer, who was a grade behind him at the same school.  Word fomented in the undercurrent of high school gossip, among the swelling ranks of aspiring rock ‘n’ roll stars wandering locker-lined hallways:  “Wanted.  Lead guitarist for band.”

Someone contacted Bruce and we set up an audition with a guy for Saturday afternoon in my basement.  Our first candidate, Randy brought his electric guitar and amplifier that we helped unload from a big-finned Cadillac sporting a friendly adult behind the wheel, presumably his dad.  He set up his gear in the basement.  The guitar was a white, hollow-body style widely used by country and western players.  That should have been our first clue.  Getting down to business, we asked him to play something.  Randy picked out a few twangy notes that could have been a song, but it didn’t sound familiar.  He continued to noodle around on the fretboard until we stopped him.  “How ’bout we play something together,” I suggested.

The difference between three-chord rock and roll and three-chord country music is measured in degrees of twangyness.  Every song we tried with this guy contained flaming twang, an astoundingly bad noise when you’re playing Louie, Louie and he’s doing Ernest Tubb.  He couldn’t sing either, let alone harmonize.  Deeply disappointed, we mustered up an apologetic “Thanks, but no thanks.”  He was sent packing back up the stairs, and into his chauffeured Caddy, doubtlessly headed back toward Nashville.

“Well…” I started.
“I didn’t like him,” Mike interrupted.
“Neither did I,” Bruce added.
“Did you see his cowboy boots?” Tony smirked.  “Pointy toes.”
The tension broke and we shared a chuckle.
“Now what?” I continued.
An awkward silence filled the basement until Tony spoke.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said.  “I don’t like the band I’m in now and really wanna switch from bass to lead guitar.”
Our faces screwed up and while we began to ponder this statement, Tony picked up Mike’s Squire and ripped off a few cool riffs.
“Do you have a six-string?” I asked.
“Not yet.  But I’ve got my eye on a used Telecaster and a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp.”
An audible sigh of relief and we enthusiastically agreed to let Tony join.  He traded in his bass and amp for the new gear after school one day and was ready to rehearse the following Saturday.

The four of us — Mike, Bruce, Tony and I — learned more new songs that Saturday afternoon than any of us thought possible.  Beatles, Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Rolling Stones.  Nothing seemed out of reach.  We were ready to round the first corner.  In one flash of brilliance we pledged never to make another left turn, walking or driving, but dismissed it in almost the same instant.  Really.  We weren’t stupid.  There was music to be played and cash to be made.  And Beatle boots to buy.

To be continued…

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The No Left Turns: Tony, Bruce, Mike and Joe

 

Making a (No) Left Turn

The deal to work as a private groundskeeper that summer was struck between Dad and one of his well-to-do customers.  Starting on the first sunny day of summer vacation, I quickly learned to appreciate working outside for the prevailing minimum wage, a buck twenty-five an hour.

That summer job enabled me to buy a new bass guitar.  The band needed a bassist and I thought four strings were way cooler than six anyway.  It was a Kalamazoo KB, manufactured by the respected Gibson guitar company but it sported a Fender Mustang body style.  Years later it was rumored the material comprising its body was manufactured from the same wood product used in making toilet seats.  The joke was that it sounded like crap.  In spite of that, it was Gibson’s best-selling bass guitar at the time and it sounded pretty good to me.

I really had two jobs that summer.  The other one was auditioning drummers.  It was light work compared to mowing and reseeding lawns.  Bruce was the first guy who lugged a complete drum set down the basement steps, assembled it, and immediately demonstrated the solo to Wipe Out.  The rest of us joined in, adding yet another three-chord opus to our growing repertoire.  The adolescent bathroom humor would eventually find its way into our public performances as we’d introduce the number as “our favorite toilet paper song.”

Whether it was the audition itself or the fact that Bruce owned a complete drum kit with cymbals, kick bass, and high hat that tipped the scale in his favor, I’m not sure.  Regardless, we now had a real drummer and could learn more songs.  We wasted no time practicing at decibel levels approaching the stratosphere.  To this day, my mother claims to have enjoyed every minute of it.  Mom is a saint.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll just leave my drums here,” Bruce said when we’d finished the audition and it was time for everyone to go home.  “I have practice pads at home.” That inspired my cousin to leave his amp and so my parents’ basement was instantly transformed into our permanent rehearsal hall.  After a couple more practice sessions, Bruce phoned me one evening to suggest getting business cards printed up.  “My brother is a photographer,” he explained.  “We could pose for some pictures and use them for publicity with the cards. By the way, what’s the name of our band?”
When I responded “O-Geez,” I thought he’d never stop laughing.
“OK, we need a new name,” I confessed.  “Let’s think about it.”

Saturday rolled around and I met Carl at a local coffee shop.  Sitting across from each other in a booth next to the front window, I ordered a Coke and Carl ordered coffee.  “We need a new name for the band,” I said.  He looked at me, looked down at the menu, and then stared out the window for a minute before he spoke.
“How about the No Left Turns?” he asked, still staring out the window.
“Huh?”
“No Left Turns”
“For the band?”
“Yeah”
I thought a while, stirring the ice in my Coke with a straw. “Where did that come from?”
“Take a look outside,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the window.
I craned my neck to look through the glass over my shoulder.  There it was.  Posted under the red stop sign at the parking lot exit was another sign that read “No Left Turn.”
“Cool. I like it!”  From that point on, our band would be the No Left Turns.

We continued to practice in the basement.  One day Bruce hitched a ride over with his older brother, Gordy, an amateur photographer with a 35mm SLR camera and darkroom.  “Gordy thinks we should have some publicity pictures to go along with our new business cards,” Bruce exclaimed, bounding down the stairs.  Then he pulled out a box with freshly printed business cards.  Centered on each was “Music by the No Left Turns” and the tagline “(We Gotta Be Right).” At the bottom was Bruce’s home phone number.  Our names were printed individually in each corner of the card.  It was a masterpiece.

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The day was overcast and Gordy thought it would be perfect for taking some pictures.  The five of us piled into his Chevrolet Bel Air and headed downtown.  “I already scoped out the perfect location,” he announced as we parked just around the corner from the Beloit State Bank.  We climbed out and ambled over to a spot where the bank’s drive-through exited to Grand Avenue.  And there it was.  The most beautiful “No Left Turn” sign we’d ever seen, mounted under a stop sign on a post behind a flowering shrub.  Across the street, the Corinthian columns of the post office formed a perfect backdrop.  Gordy shot an entire roll of black and white film as we posed in various ways.  A week later we saw the 8×10 prints and understood.  The No Left Turns were driving straight up the road to stardom.  No turning back… or left.

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The No Left Turns: Bruce, Joe, Mike, Carl

 

The Great Band Battle of 1967

The new year held promise.  Winter was cold, but the No Left Turns were undergoing a small-scale climate change, growing hotter every week.  We were playing for school dances all over the county, looking pretty cool in our matching Beatle boots and tan jackets that resembled salvaged burlap sacks.  Our personnel had changed too.  Bruce was recruited to play drums.  Tony replaced Carl, playing lead guitar on a Fender Telecaster through a Twin Reverb amp.  Mike was still strumming his Fender Squire and I was plucking my Kalamazoo bass, both through Sears Silvertone amps.  Despite a dearth of high-end equipment, we sounded “pretty good,” as reported by the few brave kids who would approach us after a dance.

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No Left Turns: Tony (gtr/voc), Bruce (dr), Mike (gtr/voc), Joe (bs/voc)

The real test was only weeks away.  Around Easter break, the Beloit Jaycees were sponsoring a “Battle of the Bands” competition in the Memorial High School gym.  I’m not entirely certain who among us saw the newspaper promotion first, but I’d bet my bass it was Bruce.  We signed up.  Bruce took care of the details.

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March 17, 1967 Beloit Daily News promotional ad

The high school gym was arranged with platforms at either end so one band could perform while another could be setting up their gear.  Eight bands competed, each granted fifteen minutes to get the teenage audience dancing while simultaneously influencing the adult judges .   The No Left Turns drew a long straw so we were the last band to compete.  Once we unloaded the trailer, much of our time was spent in the boys restroom, wisely constructing a set list.  We even worked out a few synchronized moves, or “steps” as we referred to them.  Man, we were determined to flaunt our full range of talent.

We set up our gear on the west platform as the now long forgotten penultimate band made their joyful noise at the opposite end.  When it was finally our turn, I stepped to the mic and greeted the audience, “Hello. We’re the No Left Turns.”  Bruce counted off, “One, two, three, four…”  Guitars, bass, and drums joined in near perfect synchronicity as we hit the opening chords to Devil with a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly.  Within seconds everyone was dancing!   But we were just warming up.  To showcase our versatility, we played Snoopy vs. the Red Baron next, hoping something cute would curry favor with the judges.  Our softer side was revealed on Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying, a slow song introduced as a lady’s choice by Mike whose velvet voice made the girls swoon.  That left plenty of time for our coup de gras:  a high energy cover of Shout that had the audience jumping and flailing their arms in the air as intended.  The set concluded and we took our bows to wild applause and cheering.  This, despite having forgotten all about the “steps” we’d rehearsed previously in the restroom, damn it.

We leapt off the platform and milled around impatiently, waiting another fifteen minutes for the results to be announced while someone played records over the house speakers.   Eventually, the voice of a local DJ crackled above the hubbub.  He issued the first award for showmanship, bestowed upon the drummer of the Prodigal Sons from Janesville.  “OK, so he’s Mr. Congeniality,” I sniped out loud, “Let’s get on with it.”  Our confidence was seriously shaken when the Corporation of Sound was awarded second place.  “What the hell?  The Marauders were way better than those guys,” Tony blubbered.  “We’re screwed,” I added.  In our estimation, the Marauders had been our only real competition in this battle.  Dejected, we feared the worst.  But our shroud of gloom lifted and our jaws dropped when we heard the words, “First prize goes to…(long pause)… the No Left Turns!”  Mike jumped into my arms and we all congratulated ourselves, smacking each other’s backs like we’d just reached number one on the Billboard chart.  If we’d smoked cigars I’m certain we’d have been passing them out like proud expectant fathers.

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March 24, 1967 The Increscent (student newspaper)

The Beloit Daily News made no mention of our laurels.  Our sole accolade appeared in the Beloit Memorial High School student newspaper, The Increscent, pictured above.  Word on the street suggested the Marauders would have won, save for a mistake one of their guys made by performing in two different bands at the same competition.  Apparently, that was a rule violation, or perhaps a breach of etiquette.  Nonetheless, we savored our victory.  Bruce even wrote a note of appreciation to the Jaycees and mailed it to the Daily News.  It was printed in the “Letters to the Editor” column on March 22, 1967.  I never suspected him of rubbing it in.  Would you?

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March 22, 1967 Beloit Daily News