The No Left Turns and Our Summer of Love

The moon was in its seventh house, Jupiter aligned with Mars, and the Age of Aquarius was dawning.  The No Left Turns recently had won a “battle of the bands” and bookings were on the rise.  Our agent put us on the road to gigs throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.  And we were fast becoming a favorite at the South Beloit American Legion dances.

Our repertoire was changing too as we began to include songs not typically heard on the radio.  Always on the lookout for musical genres outside of top forty, I’d picked up a record album by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers titled A Hard Road.  We learned a moderately bluesy song from that album, You Don’t Love Me.  It featured a catchy guitar riff and a simple three-chord progression.  Simple was right up our alley.

One song that made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that spring was Light My Fire by the Doors.  “What a great song,” I announced at a rehearsal. “It would be really cool to play it!”  There was only one hitch. The familiar opening riff featured an organ, an instrument missing from our lineup.  That settled it.  We went in search of a keyboard player.  Following up on a classmate’s tip, our quest began and ended in one day when Tony and I drove to a large old farmhouse just outside of town to meet Jim.

Jim was finishing up his freshman year in high school.  He led us into his living room where against the far wall stood a Lowrey organ.  “Well, play us something,” said Tony.  Jim sat on the bench, made a few adjustments and suddenly we were listening to the organ solo from In the Midnight Hour. Impressed, I asked Jim if he could play Light My Fire.  Without a word, he looked at the keyboard and worked it out in front of us.  Then he asked if we’d like to hear the organ part from Good Lovin’.  Mouths agape, we could only nod like bobble heads.  There was one last question.  “How the hell do you move that thing?” I asked.  That’s when Jim told us about his portable Farfisa organ and said while he’s in the band, he’d leave it my basement where we rehearsed.  Traveling to gigs, we’d stow it in the trailer with the rest of our gear.

Hundreds of kids attended a dance we played at the Janesville YMCA, our first with Jim, on a stage that was large enough to seat a philharmonic orchestra.  We opened that show with our cover of (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet and followed it up with In the Midnight Hour.  What a kick it was to look out from that stage and see nearly everyone dancing and a few kids standing in front of it gazing up at us.

The No Left Turns

Our set list evolved and was enhanced with Jim on the Farfisa.  Not everything was rosy though.  We debuted a new song, Whiter Shade of Pale, at the Star Zenith Boat Club after rehearsing it only twice the previous week.  Located on a lovely stretch of the Rock River, the Boat Club was a beautiful venue.  Beautiful was not an attribute of the song we tried to render, though.  My voice cracked repeatedly, reaching for impossible notes.  Sufficiently distracted, I forgot what my fingers were supposed to do on the frets of that bass.  Tony and Mike sounded like they each were playing different songs.  Exasperated, Bruce stopped playing drums entirely.  The only one who “skipped the light fandango” tolerably was Jim.  But the song remained beyond salvaging.  We never played Whiter Shade of Pale or the Boat Club again.

The No Left Turns played for a high school graduation “after-party” one sultry night in early June.  It was a learning experience.   Like most clandestine beer parties, it was held in an old, red barn near a corn field, somewhere off a pot-holed county road, a safe distance from the school and unwary adults.  We arrived to learn we’d be setting up in the hayloft, a short climb up a steep ladder.  We quickly learned the mechanics of operating a block and tackle to lift our equipment up and onto the platform like stevedores.  After a while we learned the limitations of drinking beer while performing on a platform ten feet in the air.  I calculate those limitations were realized when Mike grabbed the block and tackle rope, jumped off the platform, guitar slung over his shoulder, coil cord still plugged into his towering amp, and began swinging Tarzan style out over the dancers below.

I’m not certain which occurred first, his amp toppling over with a thud on the platform, or the block and tackle brake releasing.  Mike dropped head first into the crowd on the barn floor.  You might say he was ahead of his time, body surfing the audience.  Or you might say he was three sheets to the wind.  Fortunately, he broke neither his guitar nor any of his body parts. The same couldn’t be said for his amp, which suffered minor contusions and a broken knob.  After the party, we loaded up the trailer and I drove us home while Tony tended to the other groggy members of our band.  We learned to stay away from gigs involving stevedore apparatus and unrestricted alcohol consumption.

We were honored with an invitation to play for the Miss Rockford Teenager fashion show and pageant.  As honorable a gig as it might have been, I remember very little about it.  I do recall we stood around for quite some time before actually performing.  Though our very short set closed with We Gotta Get Out of this Place, it was nonetheless an honor and a privilege for us to have been a part of the festivities.

Rockford newspaper ad excerpt

Another memorable summer gig involved a two-hour road trip to Savanna, Illinois with the five of us crammed into a Studebaker Lark and no air conditioning.  Loaded up trailer in tow, we headed southwest to the furthest destination we’d ever traveled to perform.  Walking out the back door of my parents’ house, I snatched a Polaroid Swinger camera off the kitchen counter along with a nearby unopened film roll.  I hoped my sister wouldn’t mind my borrowing it.  We snapped some goofy pictures along the way and watched them develop before our eyes.  We were destined to become proficient in selfies, snapping even goofier pictures with our smartphones fifty years hence.

The Savanna gig was in a second floor dance hall above a tavern on the main street of town.  Lugging half a ton of amplifiers, speakers and instruments up a narrow flight of enclosed stairs did little to exhilarate the band.  We were even less exhilarated upon learning a major rock ‘n roll concert was occurring that very night some forty miles up the road and across the river in Dubuque, Iowa.  For the dozen or so teens who stayed in Savanna for lack of a ticket or a ride to Dubuque, we played our hearts out.  Given the choice, we would have played all night rather than having to lug half a ton of gear back down that claustrophobic stairway, loading the trailer and then driving two hours back to Beloit.  With deep disappointment, I must report that no Polaroid snapshots survived the evening.

The Armory in Janesville presented yet another stairway to a dance hall. Not quite as narrow as the one in Savanna, but just as many steps.  To my knowledge, the kids who came to dance while we entertained there had no better concert to attend that night.

Janesville Gazette ad

Our best performance was for “Record Bandstand” at the Rock County Fairgrounds in Janesville.  The No Left Turns felt on top of our game that night, performing on a stage that had seen many regional and nationally recognized bands appear in previous weeks.  By then, the set list included Light My Fire and Incense and Peppermints.  Both featured longer organ solos.  Over the summer we’d built our own light boxes for stage lighting.  Wired with foot-switches for changing colors of the lights, sometimes I’d step on those switches repeatedly during a song.  That was the extent of our “psychedelic light show.”

At times we were as foolish as we were clever.  Once we spent hours cobbling together a Rube Goldberg mechanical strobe light out of old wooden box and electric fan parts.  Not surprisingly, it never quite accomplished what we had envisioned.  The No Left Turns were envious of our rivals, the Jaywalkers .  They’d found a real strobe light bulb with a control box.  The Jaywalkers also had a very large wooden and metal-framed wheel, painted with a black and white spiral design.  A motor would spin the wheel and the spiral would take on a hypnotic appearance, sort of like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  When the strobe light was switched on, band members and the wheel transformed into oddly psychedelic objects.

The Jaywalkers “Hypno-Wheel”

A dance in one high school gym we played had a psychedelic theme.  Even as the incoming Student Council president at that school, I still didn’t have enough influence with anyone in authority to loan us an overhead projector.  My plan was to get a clear plate to place on the overhead’s glass lens and have someone add drops of colored oils while projecting it on a large white sheet behind the band.  I’d read about it in a music fanzine, probably Song Hits Magazine.

Undaunted for want of an overhead projector, the No Left Turns borrowed an 8mm film projector and projected home movies from atop a scaffold on the gym floor onto a large white sheet which hung behind the band.  Our projectionist kept twisting the lens to keep the picture’s focus soft and mostly unrecognizable as family vacation movies.  Occasionally though, a waterfall or canyon gorge would clearly come into view as strains of Wild Thing filled the air.

Fall brought the return of school dances and more gigs at the American Legion Hall, all of which the No Left Turns relished with considerable enthusiasm.  That was our Summer of Love.  It had its ups and downs.  Some were in narrow staircases, some were in barns, but only one featured home movies.

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?”
“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.