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