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.

 

 

Excuse Me, I Got Carried Away

I’d just completed my freshman year in college and was home for the summer.  Dad lined up a job for me through one of his buddies in the personnel department of Fairbanks-Morse where I’d be working in a factory that manufactured diesel engines for ships and trains.  Perhaps he thought working in a sweaty, loud environment would encourage me to stay in school.  I guess he hadn’t visited my dorm recently.

When the whistle blew at 3:00 pm, ending my shift, I’d sometimes meet up with Carl and we’d hang out, listen to music, practice our guitars, harmonize and wax philosophical.  Carl and I hadn’t played music together for a couple years following his departure from the now long-defunct No Left Turns.  But this summer we entertained ourselves and a few close friends by plunking out some tunes we learned.  It was mostly stuff by the Beatles, Dylan, Donovan, Judy Collins and a few others. We worked out a pretty good arrangement for the song Two Of Us  by the Beatles.  At least one of us was a folksinger wannabe.  You can probably guess who.

While I was busy in the sweatshop, Carl was enrolled in a summer theater workshop at the University of Wisconsin Center-Rock County, sponsored by their drama department.  690611 JanesGaz Workshop 1Often, I’d accompany him to workshop sessions where our creative juices mingled with those of like-minded music and theater junkies.   That talented group would work on play writing and hash out ideas for producing and staging a show.  A public performance was planned for the finale, designed as a coffeehouse program to include original sketches, interpretive dance and folk music.  I was drafted, without resistance, to be the evening’s folksinger, having honed my chops the previous fall in a basement coffeehouse at Saint Mary’s College across the road from Notre Dame where I’d be headed back to school and my girlfriend in a couple weeks.

“Rock River Revival: An Evening of Coffee House Entertainment” was presented on a balmy Sunday night in the all-purpose room at UW-Rock County.  Acting and dancing our way through the evening, I hammed it up in the role of “Ferd Barks, Master of Ceremonies” for an original satire, Miss America – A Great Tradition690800 Gazette Dancers Additionally, an interpretive dance was choreographed to lampoon the old Carrie Jacobs Bond parlor song, A Perfect Day.  Bond was a Janesville, Wisconsin native perhaps most noted for her song, I Love You Truly.  The dance sequence involved “living statues,” one of whom was me.  It was my first arabesque.

The final slot of the evening was the much anticipated (by me, anyway) folk singing during which I stood solo 690816 BDN txtwith my guitar on the proscenium stage in front of a drawn velvet curtain, nearly blinded in the bright spotlight.  It was my Bob Dylan moment to be sure.  I even recall playing a couple of Dylan songs, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” in addition to several by other popular folksingers of the day.

The problem with standing in a spotlight is that it’s sometimes difficult to judge the passing of time or gauge audience yawn-frequency.Folksinger Joe  You’re sort of drifting in space, especially when you don’t have a written set list and you become oblivious to how far beyond the allotted fifteen minutes you’ve gone just singing whatever songs pop into your head.  It must have been disappointing for the stage manager to be without a shepherd’s hook at that precise moment. So he did the next best thing.  He sent Carl out to physically lift me up and carry me offstage, much to the delight of the exhausted audience.  I never really figured out whether they were applauding my performance or Carl’s.  Either way, I remain fairly certain they thought it was part of the show.

 

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

Heavy Chevy and the Circuit Riders

I was associate director of the Janesville Public Library in 1981 when the phone call came to my desk.  Sue was looking for a master of ceremonies to host a fundraiser at St. William Grade School.  Our conversation revealed that she and husband Phil, a couple of local folk musicians, were teaming up with Dan and Roxanne, another folk music duo, for an evening of song and dance to raise some money for the school.  Dan and Roxanne had achieved some notoriety in the Midwest folk community with the release of their album of traditional songs, From Far and Near.  It didn’t take much arm-twisting before I agreed to meet with them over the weekend to discuss a plan.

Sue was standing in her yard waving when I pulled up to the curb on Saturday afternoon.  I closed the car door and followed her into the house where we walked up some steps to the kitchen.  Just as my nose was greeted by the aroma of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies, my ears were assailed by an electric guitar plunking out the opening chords to Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock.  I swiped a cookie from a plate on the kitchen counter and moved stealthily around a doorway into the dining room.

The table and chairs had been removed and replaced by people, guitars, amplifiers and other assorted goodies.  A full drum set complete with a drummer introduced as Jim, and a guy named Steve who gripped a harmonica, were in the room also.  A couple of P.A. speaker columns and some microphones were spread about where the dining table would have been.

Sue must have noticed the surprise on my face.  “We’re not playing folk music for the dance, Joe,” she said.  “We’re playing fifties and sixties music.  We need you to introduce songs and lead some trivia contests.”
“How well do you know your fifties trivia?” added Dan.
“I know my stuff,” I replied confidently.

As we talked more and noodled around on some old rock ‘n’ roll songs, I wandered over to an open mic and sang the first line of Jailhouse Rock:  “Warden threw a party at the county jail.  Prison band was there and they began to wail.”
Everyone stopped.  Jim shouted, “I’ll count it off!  One, two…”
We took it from the top and went full throttle. I did my best Elvis imitation.
“I think we found our Heavy Chevy!” exclaimed Sue. “Heavy, meet the Circuit Riders.”
I’d advanced from MC to full-fledged band member in the time it took to eat one oatmeal cookie.

Heavy Chevy PosterOver the next two weeks we rehearsed until we’d mastered a passable set of classics that included a little doo-wop, a few girl group songs, one tear-jerker and a bunch of good old rock ‘n’ roll.  We even composed an original song, The Ballad of Heavy Chevy.  But perhaps the most important thing we did was assign more fifties-sounding nicknames to ourselves.  So let me introduce to you the Circuit Riders:  Dapper Dan; Foxy Roxy; Runaround Sue; Philadelphia Phil; Steve-o-reno; Slim Jim; and yours truly, Heavy Chevy.

I was thrilled to be singing with these seasoned musicians.  After a wildly successful fundraiser at St. William school, Heavy Chevy and the Circuit Riders carried on for a while, working more fundraising gigs around Janesville.  It was a blast, daddy-o!   And while I’d feared sharing this with you out of utter embarrassment, here’s a link to Heavy Chevy and the Circuit Riders starring in their music video, The Ballad of Heavy Chevy.

Oh, Geez! Part II: The First Gig

The party was at a classmate’s farmhouse on a Saturday evening in June.  We were invited to “entertain” our fellow sophomores as a band.  In fading daylight, the four of us set up our gear on the patio facing east into an apple orchard extending a hundred yards or more.  This was our big moment.  Not counting ourselves and the occasional younger sibling or stray parent, the O-Geez were playing for the first time in front of more people and trees than ever before.

Long shadows from the approaching sunset made setup a challenge.  None of us had thought about stage lighting.   We finished setting up in the glow of a single yellow patio light bulb until our host retrieved some trouble lights from the tractor shed and strung them around to serve as stage lights.  Our “gear” consisted of one Holiday-brand amplifier of mine and one enviously new Sears Silvertone that cousin Mike received in advance of his upcoming birthday.  Carl’s acoustic guitar required no amp.  Or so we thought.  Dan set up his snare drum and cymbal stage right.

Though we’d considered vocal amplification, not surprisingly we had no P.A. system.  We improvised, beginning with scrounging up two small, portable microphones that accompanied a couple of old tape recorders.  For mic stands, we used the extendable base sections of two wire music stands and taped the microphones to the angled stem at the top, sans the music holder piece normally found there.  We adjusted the height of the mics using the latch hook on each stand.

Fortunately, each of the amplifiers had two inputs, so we used one input for a guitar and the second one for a microphone.  To our great dismay the microphone cords were too short for setting the amps behind us in the customary rock ‘n’ roll band fashion.  Collectively we came up with the obvious and only solution.  Place the amps in front of the mic stands.

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A ragtag bunch we were!  It was far from the ideal stage arrangement.  Dauntless, we wouldn’t let technicalities stand in the way of an auspicious first public performance.  Realizing that Carl’s acoustic guitar was no match for the electric noise blaring from our amps, we’d lowered one of the stands to position a microphone in front of his strings.  Three of us would share the one remaining mic.  Thankfully Dan the drummer didn’t sing.

Our set list of about ten songs represented quintessential three-chord rock ‘n’ roll, from Hanky Panky  to Twist and Shout.  I’m fairly certain we still didn’t nail every chord.  Lyrics were true to whatever we thought we’d heard on the record.  For some songs like Louie, Louie, mumbling was helpful.  Once the set was finished, we took a well-deserved break.  Then, we played and sang all of them one more time for our second set.

The show business bug had bitten us.  Most of us anyway.
“You know, guys, football practice starts in a few weeks,” Dan muttered as we were packing up our stuff.
“Huh?” was our only immediate response.
“I can’t be in the band and play football too.”
“What the hell?” I blurted, in utter disbelief that anyone would want to give up the glamorous lifestyle lying ahead for us.
“It’s okay.” mumbled Carl, the sole voice of reason. “We’ll find someone else.”

I slept restlessly that night, still scratching where the show business bug bit me.  Or was that a mosquito bite?  No matter.  One would go away.  The other one wouldn’t.

 

The End of Summer Can Be Deflating

The infamous garage band I led in high school named the “No Left Turns” had a rather “deflating” experience some 48 years ago.  It was a sultry night in late August.  Ken, our booking agent, got us a gig at Janesville Craig High School for a back-to-school dance.  We were fortunate to have a booking agent, though I don’t think any of us really knew what percentage he was taking for himself.  We were just grateful to have someone finding us work, sending us a contract and leaving us to do the job.

Not to brag or anything, but among Ken’s stable of bands was a Rockford group who, a few years later, became Cheap Trick.  Ken was their exclusive manager for quite a long time.  It’s something I look back on with a tiny glimmer of pride, though our musical paths never crossed.

Back at Craig High School the dance was going swimmingly.  We had everyone up and rocking to songs by the Rascals and the Rolling Stones among others.  Two of our favorites were versions of In the Midnight Hour and (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet as they were covered by Michael & the Messengers.

After the dance was over and we had collected our fee, we broke down our gear and hauled it out to load on the trailer hitched to my 1962 Studebaker Lark.  During the ten-mile drive back home to Beloit I felt some serious vibrations coming from the trailer.  We were on the outskirts of town, anticipating our usual after-gig ritual of heading to the Hollywood Drive-In for fish ’n chips dinners.

I pulled over into the parking lot of a nearly deserted bar.  Getting out to examine the trailer we noticed one of its tires was especially low.  Upon closer examination, we discovered the lug nuts on that same wheel had been loosened.  It was a couple of minutes before we found a wrench to tighten up the lug nuts.  That sewn up, we proceeded cautiously to the nearest service station on the way to the drive-in.  There we re-inflated the low tire, checked the others, topped off the gas tank, and then blasted off to feast on greasy fish and french fries.

The No Left Turns survived an intentional deflation attempt without further incident and with nary a quarterback involved.

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Mediterranean Irish

I’m not Irish.  My friend Frank, on the other hand, is very much Irish.  So when he came to visit all the way from Maine and to attend Milwaukee’s 35th annual Irish Fest last weekend, I agreed to accompany him.  He offered to pick up the tab for both of us to hear four days of Celtic music and to drink beer.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse!  I had never gone out of my way much to hear Celtic music, but it turned out to be an immensely entertaining experience and an educational one as well.  I heard three songs in particular that connected with my past musically.

It would be a challenge to count how many times the song Whiskey in the Jar was performed at Irish Fest.  Hearing it covered in various ways by different bands wasn’t unusual as it’s one of the most widely performed traditional Irish tunes.  In general, the song is about a highwayman who is betrayed by his lover.  (As Frank explained to me, eighty percent of traditional Irish songs end badly for one or more individuals involved.)  While the precise origin of Whiskey in the Jar is unknown, sources suggest the song can be traced back to the 17th century.  It’s been recorded by numerous artists since the 1950s.  In addition to traditional versions by Irish folk groups like the Dubliners, for whom it became a signature song, and a beautiful acoustic rendition by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, more amplified covers of Whiskey in the Jar have been successful hits for rock bands Thin Lizzy and Metallica.  My favorite version at Irish Fest was performed by an innovative Celtic pop band, the Screaming Orphans, pictured here with Frank and me after their show.

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More than forty years ago I picked up a Quicksilver Messenger Service album entitled Shady Grove.  Shady Grove labelQuicksilver was a psychedelic rock band from San Francisco.  Shady Grove was their second studio album and opened with a rocking version of the title song.  At that time, I didn’t realize Shady Grove was an 18th-century American folk song with more than 300 variations in its lyrics.  At Irish Fest I learned it’s a standard in the repertoires of folk, Celtic and bluegrass musicians all over the world.  When a three-piece acoustic band, Socks in the Frying Pan, played that unmistakable melody in Milwaukee, I thought of the Quicksilver album from years ago.

In 1969 I would listen to a song called Dirty Old Town from Rod Stewart’s first solo record, released just after his stint as vocalist “extraordinaire” for blues-rock guitar icon, Jeff Beck.  While I’ve always enjoyed the song even to this day, I didn’t know much about it.  When I heard the Kilkennys perform it last week at Irish Fest, I wanted to know more.  Dirty Old Town is a British song written by Ewan MacColl in 1949.  It was popularized in the 60s by the Dubliners and has been recorded by artists of many other genres since, including Stewart in 1969 and Betty LaVette in 2012, another recording I have.  Even a Celtic punk band, the Pogues, covered it in 1985.  At Irish Fest, the Kilkennys, pictured here, nailed it in its native genre better than any other version I’ve heard.

IMG_1786I’ve been to Milwaukee’s Festa Italiana.  That’s my heritage.  While the Italian festivals are happy, colorful celebrations, filled with music, dancing and food, I confess to having had more fun at my first Irish Fest.  Sláinte, mama mia!  Grazie, Frank!