Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Alan Thacker (page 1 of 2)

Makanda Java — Carbondale, Illinois

Jay, the owner of Makanda Java

I am not even sure if the building or the coffee shop that was inside is still there, but when I was briefly a student at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois one of the favorite places to hang out when I was attending in the autumn of 1983 was Makanda Java.

Although I had first started to attend SIU in the summer of 1980, it wasn’t until the summer of 1981 when I first stopped in Makanda Java with Alan Thacker and Dick Verucchi of The Jerks. I had seen the coffee shop before-passing it countless times when I walked up and down Illinois Avenue back in 1980-but I wasn’t into hanging out in coffee shops just yet. It wouldn’t be until that road trip to Carbondale in the summer of 1981 when The Jerks played at T.J. McFly’s when I got my first taste of a fine brewed cup of coffee at Makanda Java.

Until that magical summer of 1981, I hadn’t discovered or been turned onto the finer qualities of life-like enjoying a freshly brewed pot of coffee made from some rich, roasted coffee beans or sipping a demitasse of espresso while enjoying some freshly baked pastry or a bagel oozing with melted cream cheese. I liked coffee and had been drinking it for years but when it came to my java it was best served or so I thought, in a white ceramic mug at some truck stop like the Tiki in Peru or some diner. That would change when I got to know Alan and Dick and started going on the road with The Jerks. You might say that was one of the perks (pun intended) of being in The Jerks and getting to know Alan and Dick: they turned me onto more than just music like what a fine cup of coffee should taste like.

I would soon find that out in the summer of the 1981 when The Jerks made the first of three visits to Carbondale and gigs at T.J. McFly’s (once managed by Jim Belushi back in the 70s if the rumors are correct). One afternoon, Alan, Dick and I went shopping at Plaza Records, located in a small shopping center across the street, and later stopped in for some coffee at Makanda Java.

What I remember most about the coffee shop was its cozy and homey atmosphere. There was a counter in the front where the owner Jay sold all kinds of coffee and herbal tea as well as muffins and other pastries and a few tables, but as you walked toward the back, it looked more like someone’s house crossed with an antique shop. There was this old Wurlitzer jukebox that was filled with many 45s of bands who played at various bars in Carbondale like the Hangar Nine, The Club, PK’s and T.J. McFly’s, another counter where one could buy coffee beans and tea and in the back sofas and chairs for people to hang out and relax.

The coffee house had originally been located in the artist community of Makanda, not far from Carbondale and many of the regulars (that I would soon discover) had either attended SIU at one point or another in the past 20 years or were artists from Makanda. It was not unusual to bump into some hippie artist from the 60s or some avant-garde filmmaker or artist from the 70s in the coffee shop. And when many bands played in Carbondale they always made a point in stopping in at Makanda Java to drop off one of their 45’s for Jay’s Jukebox. It was also not uncommon for Jay to play some new 45 or album that a customer had just purchased at Plaza Records-like the Christmas XTC single I would buy in 1983 and listen to with Jay over a pot of house blend one afternoon.

When I went back to SIU in the autumn of 1983 I hung out at Makanda Java a lot. I remember many a cool autumn afternoon sitting outside at a table made from these huge wooden spools used for wire on a tree-stump enjoying a pot of the house blend and reading SIU’s school newspaper The Daily Egyptian. That fall there was even an article about Makanda Java in the paper and how Jay, who had moved down to Carbondale from Chicago, had found what could best be described as coffee house nirvana with his shop. I still might have that article in storage back home.

Most of the people I went to school with and hung out with at the bars and clubs also hung out there. A couple of times I would start drinking coffee and once that caffeine buzz got going, I would forget about going back to class. I was studying filmmaking back then and one night, some of the film students borrowed a copy of the French movie The Red Balloon and showed it inside.

I had some friends who lived next door-Becky, this girl I knew from the first time I went to SIU in 1980-and her roommate and we hung out a lot. I wonder whatever happened to them and the others I knew from 1983? There was this one guy, Savich, who had his name legally changed to that after watching one of the Star Trek movies who I also met back in 1983 and hung out with at Makanda and other places.

When I left Carbondale at the end of that semester he was supposedly going to Vandalia to teach cons at the State Penitentiary located outside of town how to paint. I would end up patterning the main character in my short story “Going after Sexton” after him.

I can still remember one cool, autumn afternoon sitting outside with a pot of the house blend watching everyone walk by. When someone passed that I knew, they would pull up a tree stump and join me for a while before heading off to wherever they had been going. To wax philosophical a bit, I suppose that afternoon and many others were a microcosm for my life at the time, when I wasn’t too sure about where I was headed, but sometimes you just want to sit on the sidelines or in the audience instead of being down there on the field or on the stage.

Since 1983, I have been in countless coffee shops around the world but all pale in comparison to the good times I had at Makanda Java. It was a great place to hang out when I was in school but at the same time it was also a place where I got to discover some things about myself through the people I met and what we talked about as well as be turned onto various kinds of music and literature that would come to define me as I got older. I suppose we all have our own Makanda Java in our lives, some special place that has shaped and defined us.

“Have Yourself a Merry little Beatles’ Christmas…”

Beatles_Christmas_Album_all_ws71996508

Good King Wenceslas last looked out
On the Feast of Stephen, Ho!
As the slow ray around about
Deep and crisp and crispy.
Brightly show the boot last night
On the mossty cruel.
Henry Hall and David Lloyd,
Betty Grable, too-oo-oo.

Hello, this is John speaking with his voice.

We’re all very happy to be able to talk to you like this on this little bit of plastic. This record reaches you at the end of a really gear year for us and it’s all due to you. When we made our first record on Parlophone towards the end of 1962, we hoped everybody would like what had already been our type of music for several years already. But we had no idea of all the gear things in store for us.

It all happened really when “Please, Please Me” became a Number One hit and after that, well “cor the Blimeys, heave the mo.” Our biggest thrill of the year, well I suppose it must have been topping the bill at the London Palladium and then, only a couple of days later, being invited to take part in The Royal Variety Show.

This time last year we were all dead chuffed because “Love Me Do” got into the Top Twenty and we can’t believe really that so many things have happened in between already.

Just before I pass you over to Paul (arf! arf! arf! arf!) I’d like to say thank you to all the Beatle people who have written to me during the year and everyone who sent gifts and cards for my birthday, which I’m trying to forget, in October. I’d love to reply personally to everybody but I just haven’t enough pens.

In the meantime:

Garry Crimble to you
Garry Mimble to you
Getty Bable, Dear Christmas
Happy Birthday me too.

 

If you haven’t gotten into the Christmas spirit yet or you are looking for something a little more nostalgic—albeit rock and roll nostalgia—to get into the spirit, you might want to find a copy of The Beatles’ Christmas message recordings which were recorded for their fan club members from 1963-1969.

The recordings are not too Christmassy; indeed, other than a few attempts at singing some traditional Christmas songs (which they have fun butchering) the lads mainly joke around about what they have done and haven’t done for that year. However, there is a Christmas feel to the messages as well as a more personal side to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. That’s what makes these recordings priceless.

In the first message the guys talk a little about themselves and then have fun singing “Good King Wenceslas” as well as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer “where they change some of the lyrics to “Rudy the Red-Nosed Beagle” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Ringo.” And instead of everyone “picking on Rudolph” someone sings how that famous nose was “picked.” Things get a little weird though in the third message when they’re not as innocent and cute like the way they might have been in the first two messages. Still, they have fun butchering “Yesterday.”

In some of the later messages, you can see how they have matured as a band with their creative use of the studio for their messages. Whereas in the first two or three one can imagine them sitting around a microphone and delivering their Christmas messages, they start to get a little more creative and crazier. One can even detect a bit of Monty Pythonesque humor in their messages.

Some even get a little darker and bizarre. And in one part of their final message—with what sounds like John and Yoko walking outside—John starts singing “Good King Wenceslas”—just like he and the others had sung on the first recording. It comes across a little bittersweet, and perhaps full-circle because it would end up being their last Christmas message.

I first heard these messages back in 1978 when I was serving in the United States Air Force at George AFB, just outside of Victorville, California. Actually, I just heard one of them, the first one from 1963 on the Dr. Demento show—broadcast from some LA radio station—while I was working the graveyard shift a few weeks before Christmas. That year, I would be able to go home for Christmas, my first one back home since 1975.

It would be another three years later before I heard these messages again. In 1981, Alan Thacker, formerly of Buckacre and then the lead singer of The Jerks (and at the time a good friend of mine) turned me onto the rest of The Beatles’ Christmas messages. Alan was a big fan of The Beatles and had a huge collection of their albums including one that contained these messages. He had put the first Christmas message on a “break tape”—music that was played when The Jerks were on break when they played out—and it was so cool when I heard it again. Later Alan recorded a few more of the messages for me.

That was a special year 1981. Aside from dropping out of SIU, hanging out with my best friend Chris Vasquez and going on the road with The Jerks, it was also a Beatles’ year. It started back in the fall of 1980 when John Lennon came out with Double Fantasy and then tragedy on December 8 when Lennon was assassinated outside his Dakota apartment. With that gunshot, the chances of a Beatles’ reunion were shattered forever. And I suppose a lot of us just started to listen to The Beatles more.

The Jerks played a lot of Beatles’ covers and the drummer; Dick Verucchi had seen The Beatles twice when he was a kid. That was good enough for me to feel a part pf rock and roll history—something like six degrees of rock and roll separation. Later that summer, almost everyone in the band was reading the first authorized Beatles’ biography Shout! (it’s still one of the better books on the band). And then, a couple of the guys went out and ordered some Beatles’ boots from Trash and Vaudeville in New York.

Around the same time that I started listening to a couple of The Beatles’ Christmas messages that Alan had recorded for me, I was hanging out with Sarah Kostellic who was also a good friend of Alan’s and had just bought an album with these messages on it. She made a tape of them and that is what we listened to the night we drove down to Peoria, Illinois to attend a John Lennon Tribute at the Second Chance as well as one cold, December Sunday afternoon just driving around the Illinois Valley.

It would be a few more years before I heard these messages again. This time it was 1988 and I was attending graduate school at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. It was right before Christmas and I was going to Texas to spend Christmas with my Mom in Irving—our first Christmas together since 1978. I was hanging out with Jay Hedblade from Macomb and for some reason we started singing “Good King Wenceslas” one night and remembered these Beatles’ Christmas messages. It was right around the same time the English Department had a Christmas Party on a Friday night.

Later that evening, Jay, Stacy and Shaney (two English majors) and I were back at my apartment when who shows up but Tom Joliffe, the former soundman for The Jerks. He was playing a gig in town (he was a drummer) and just stopped by to say “Hi.”

Everything does come full circle.

A year later I am teaching in Hamamatsu, Japan and one day about two weeks before Christmas, I come across a The Beatles’ Christmas Message album and I buy it. A friend later recorded them for me but sadly the album was lost in a fire and the tape is somewhere in a box with other tapes.

It’s been 30 years since I first heard these recordings and after all these years I’ve been able to locate this these Christmas messages again to enjoy. Listening to these messages this year I am feeling more nostalgic than in recent years. I guess a lot has to do with turning 50 earlier this year and just feeling older.

Say what you will about how cheesy these recordings might seem the first couple of times you hear them; I am taking more of the nostalgic view. To be sure, it feels good to wax nostalgic even though what you remember can be a little painful and bittersweet.

On the road with The Jerks, Part 1

Meet The Jerks

 

After my first road trip with The Jerks to Peoria there was another one-night gig at a youth center in Dixon, Illinois. There would another date at the Second Chance as well as a few nights at T.J. McFly’s in Carbondale (that was a lot of fun heading back to SIU and seeing some of my old friends like Paul Collin).

 

The youth center gig in Dixon was one of those “favor” gigs—in other words, either Alan or Dick knew the owner of a bar or club from their Buckacre days (or vice versa) and the band or the owner were just cashing in that favor. With that Dixon gig, Alan and Dick were helping out a friend who had at one time helped them out. Their friend, the owner of that youth center was trying to get more business and hoped that The Jerks would bring in a good crowd.

 

It didn’t. Only a handful of kids showed up that night and I know it was an embarrassment and disappointment for their friend who expected a much larger turnout and an embarrassment for the band to have to accept money from their friend.

 

When it came to playing out—whether on the road or in one of the bars in La Salle-Peru—the band had a lot of equipment, which required a truck to get to wherever they were playing. The truck used to belong to The Outlaws, a group that Buckacre had opened for in the late 70s. It was just another one of those rock and roll connections and links (not to mention relics) that the band had with the past.


A lot of the equipment was from their Buckacre days including this very sweet, and very large 24-channel Yamaha mixing board. That was a real bear to unload and load into the truck. Usually took three of us to roll it off the truck or to roll it back in. It was even more of a bear to move when we had to haul it up a flight of stairs at some of the clubs we played at like that youth center in Dixon and Mabel’s in Champaign. Then it would take four of us to carry it up (after we had taken it out of the equally bulky and heavy road case).


One hot, summer afternoon we were unloading equipment at Friday’s when we noticed the Julia Belle Swain, this authentic riverboat slowly paddling up the Illinois River on its way from Peoria to Starved Rock State Park. That summer the owners of the Julia Belle Swain were offering these weekly riverboat excursions up and down the Illinois River and had even brought in famed bluegrass artist John Hartford (who was a licensed riverboat pilot) to pilot the ship on its journey from Peoria to Starved Rock.


Now all of us knew that John Hartford was piloting the Julia Belle Swain, so when it passed Friday’s on the river, we yelled his name. Sure enough, he was in the pilothouse and could hear us yelling and see us waving. He answered with a few short bursts of the steam whistle.


(Years later, when I was listening to the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack there was this one track that I really liked a lot. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a John Hartford. Just hearing that track and putting one and one together got me thinking about the summer of 1981 and waxing nostalgic. I quickly ordered a couple of his CDs and have been a big fan of his music ever since. Sadly, John Hartford passed away in 2001.)

 

The highlight of the summer of that rock and roll summer was a two-week road trip. We started off in Peoria at the Second Chance and from there we went to Carbondale and then on to Atlanta. For Al and Dick it was the first time that he put together this kind of tour/road trip since the days of Buckacre. The weeklong gig in Atlanta was a sweet deal arranged by some guy that had once managed Buckacre when they were playing the Georgia-Florida circuit in the 70s.


I think in many ways it was a bit of a vacation for the band, but also I think it was the thrill of being on the road again. I am sure Dick and Al missed being on the road and playing to different crowds. They really enjoyed playing music so much. It was their life ever since they performed together in their first band Rain.


After we finished playing at the Second Chance, we drove straight down to Carbondale. It was right before school started at SIU, so the whole town was buzzing with activity as thousands of students came back which meant the bar scene was going to be quite wild. Like the first time we played in Carbondale, we were back again at T.J. McFly’s, which was located on the main strip, just north of the train and bus station. Rumor had it that Jim Belushi was once the manager of the bar.


It was the largest bar in Carbondale with two rooms for bands to play in as well as a “beer garden” outside. When we played there for the first time earlier that summer, we were in the larger of the two rooms. At the same time we were there, Gary Clemons and Colors, a band out of Peoria was playing in the smaller room. How The Jerks managed to play the larger venue—when Clemons’ tour that summer was sponsored by Warner Brothers’ Records—was one of those rock and roll idiosyncrasies I guess. Maybe there was still some of that old Buckacre magic left.


T.J. McFly’s had arranged hotel accommodations for us, but when we got down there to Carbondale, we had to wait for another band to check out. Obviously they had been up all night partying so they were a bit slow in checking out that morning. So, there we were in the parking lot, waiting for our rooms. When those guys finally got out of their rooms and started loading up their gear in a van, the two bands in the parking lot were like two ships passing in the night.


Dick and Tom knew some of the guys (Tom it seemed always knew somebody that we met on the road; he had also been a drummer with the band Ken Carlyle and the Cadillac Cowboys and had played in bars and clubs throughout Illinois), and was the case when bands ran into each other, some road stories and other pleasantries were exchanged.


“Where are you guys headed?”


“Where going to Mabel’s and then back to Peoria to play the weekend at the Second Chance.”


“We just came from the Second Chance. And Mabel’s is a sweet gig. We played there before. Good crowds, but it’s a bitch getting set up inside.”


“Yeah, a real pain in the ass. What happened to so-and-so?”


“He’s with another band now.”


“You guys ever get back to the studio?”


“Maybe later this year.”


“How long you guys on the road for?”


“Just a few weeks, then just play around town.”


“Good turnout here?”


“Not bad. Guess you guys are getting here just in time. School starts in a few days. Should be pretty wild, huh?”


And then they were back on the road and we checked into our rooms; there were three of us to a room, Dave, Al, and Tom shared one room and I got to share a room with Alan and Dick.


”Man, can you believe so-and-so is still in the band?” Dick asked.

 

“He was old back in 1970,” laughed Alan. “He’s got to be ridiculous still jumping around on stage like he did back then.”

 

“Remember that time we opened for them in 1977?”

 

“And we blew them off the stage?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“They’re still probably pissed about it.”

 

When we were in Carbondale earlier that summer, it had been pretty quiet, but with school starting in a few days, the nights the band played at the bar were really wild. For students coming back to school, it probably doesn’t make any difference who’s playing, just as long as the drink specials keep on coming.


Of course, The Jerks were a good bar band. They were as probably good if not better than most bands playing the same bars and clubs they did in 1980-1982. As musicians they were tight—really tight. One wonders if they had been a few years younger, they could have gotten out of the bar/college circuit and landed bigger gigs.

 

A few months later, Dick and I were listening to a song by this new band, “The Blasters” in his van outside Murphy’s in Peru, Illinois before we went inside to set up.


“This could have been us Sparks,” Dick said. “This is the kind of music that we could have been playing after Buckacre broke up.”


Having attended classes at SIU the previous year, it was nice to be back in Carbondale again. Actually, I had thought about returning to school that year, but I was having so much fun “finding myself” as it were, I was in no hurry to get back to school. I was getting a different kind of education and one that I would constantly draw upon in the years to follow.


One night after we played, some of the bartenders in the bar invited us to some parties in this part of town called Lewis Park. That was pretty wild. One thing about college towns like Carbondale was you could just walk up to any house or apartment where there was a party going on and walk in. Alan, who was really into The Beatles, heard one of their songs being played in someone’s apartment and just walked right in and helped himself to whatever alcohol was available.


The band played three nights in Carbondale—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and then it was on the road again to Atlanta.

 

Oh, Atlanta.

With The Jerks — Rock & Roll from America’s Heartland

Meet The Jerks


I officially started working with The Jerks in the summer of 1981 but before that there would be musical interlude of a different kind.


I had taken some time off school (read: dropped out) and was pretty much just filling in the time (read: having a good time) before I went back to school.


Until then, I was hanging out with my best friend Chris and when we were not listening to The Jerks play or going to concerts, we were talking about forming our own band. We talked about how we could get jobs at Caterpillar in Pontiac, Illinois to buy equipment and even drove down there one day to fill out an application form.


There was just one small problem—I didn’t know how to play any musical instrument. No problem because Chris’ father—a distinguished guitarist in his own right—started giving us guitar lessons (his father was big fan of Johnny Smith). Unfortunately, I just lacked the musical talent to play the guitar. Kind of felt a little bit like John Lennon’s friend Stu Sutcliffe when he tried to play the bass for the Beatles.


When The Jerks were not playing at one of the more popular venues in the Illinois Valley, they would often go on the road and play some gigs at places like the Second Chance in Peoria. That was a real sweet venue, a holdover from the 70’s when a lot of these large-sized clubs opened when disco was the rave, but it also doubled as a concert hall for bands.


By now I had gotten to know the guys in the band pretty well and asked them if I could go with them when they played one of these out of town gigs. I didn’t have anything else going on (Chris had by now given up on me ever learning how to play the guitar) and I thought it would be cool to see what it was like to be “on the road” as it were with the band.


I soon found out how cool and interesting it was when I rode down to Peoria with Dick and Alan. They had all these stories about when they were in Buckacre—traveling on the road, the bands they opened for, and the people they got to meet. Listening to them reminisce was like hearing a mini living history of rock and roll.


“Remember that time when we were in the studio in London and Pete Townshend walked in to talk to Glyn Johns,” said Dick one time. “Remember how so-and-so’s jaw dropped when he saw Townshend standing there in the booth? I thought he was going to piss himself because he was so excited.”


I would get to hear a lot of “road stories” all those times I traveled with either Dick or Alan or when the two of them got together.


And it wasn’t just all these road stories, either. These guys were having fun when they were on the road. There was a bit of camaraderie and a lot of joking going around. Dick was always the funniest of them all. He had a wicked sense of humor and loved to joke with everyone.


Early one morning after a gig on the road, we were taking Al Shupp the rhythm guitarist back to his home. Al lived in this wooded, lowland area just outside of Spring Valley (sometimes referred to as “Sleepy Hollow”) and to get there, we had to drive down this winding, narrow, gravel road, which passed this old cemetery. Dick was driving his van and as we passed the cemetery, he reached out the window with his left hand and banged on the side of the van startling us in back that had been dozing off. That was the same night when Dick joked with Al calling him “Icabod” Shupp because of where he lived.


When we got to the Second Chance that first time I went with the band, I thought I was just going to hang out with Tom Joliffe (he had also been the drummer for Ken Carlyle and the Cadillac Cowboys) their soundman after we had everything set up. Alan and Dick had other ideas. Turns out the Second Chance had this lighting system for bands, which was located in a booth above the third floor of the club, way up in the back. Alan asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing the lighting—basically turning up and down the lights at the beginning and the ending of their sets—and that is how I got started running the lights for the band.


It wasn’t until a week later, while I was visiting Clare my DJ lady friend at a local radio station when I knew that I was officially working for the band. Alan must have known that I was going to be there because he stopped in at the radio station to give me a check for the night that I had run the lights. It was seventy-five dollars for a few hours work.


That summer and fall of 1981 was a wild and exciting time to be in the Illinois Valley and to go on the road with The Jerks. I think things started to really happen a few weeks before on my birthday when Chris, Dave “Bodine” Morgan the bass player for The Jerks and some female friends went to a “50’s Revival Concert” held in the Matthiessen Auditorium at La Salle-Peru Township High School. We were pretty vocal when Bobby Lewis, The Drifters, and the Reagents played that night. At one point during the concert, Bobby “Tossin’ and Turnin’” Lewis asked to have the house lights turned up so he could see the people doing all the cheering.


Back then, most of the bars that had live entertainment usually had bands on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. On the rest of the nights, a lot of us would hang out at Friday’s Saloon. One time, Bodine and I had to go to Champaign to pick up some JBL monitors for the band. Once back in the Illinois Valley though, our first stop was Friday’s. Almost every night that I was there, we would keep on drinking and partying into the early hours of the morning and then, if we were up for it, we would usually head up to the Golden Bear Restaurant to satisfy whatever hunger pangs we had. For me, it was usually a Patty Melt or a Rueben Sandwich. Other times we would head up to the Tiki Truck Stop and the Pine Cone Restaurant for Denver Omelettes and Blueberry Pancakes.


You know, when I think about it, the summer of 1981 was kind of like being in college without having to go to class.


The Jerks did not go on the road that much, maybe once or twice at the beginning of that summer. The real money was made at Friday’s or 3 N’ Company. They were always guaranteed a good take at the door and they packed in the crowds whenever they played.


One of the highlights of that summer occurred in June when they played at the Oglesby Celebration Days. It was this five-day event of music, food, 10km race (which had national notoriety) and a carnival. It was only their third concert in the Illinois Valley that was open to the general public. There were a lot of teenagers who had heard of The Jerks, but had been unable to see them.


The only thing was, The Jerks would not be the only band playing that night. On the main stage that night was “The Italian Elvis” and The Jerks would be on a smaller stage. They would go on first, followed by “The Italian Elvis” and finally they would play again.


After we got set up, Alan asked me if I wouldn’t mind introducing the band. He thought it would go over well with the large crowd already gathered in front of the stage. I even got to choose the band’s first song of the set: a rocking rendition of “Hey Little Girl” originally recorded by the Syndicate of Sound and later updated by The Deadboys.

“Say something really raunchy and wicked,” Alan said before I walked out on stage.


And that’s what I did, remembering how the band KISS was introduced on their KISS Alive album.


“Alright…alright, you wanted the raunchiest and you got the raunchiest,” I screamed into the microphone, “the raunchiest, rockingest band in the Illinois Valley…THE JERKS!”


And then as Al hit the first chord on his 12-string Rickenbacker, I leaped into the crowd and started dancing.


Chris was there, as were a few other regulars from Friday’s and they joined me. However, a few songs later, the power went out. By the time, the power could be brought back on, it was time for “The Italian Elvis” to take to the stage. Everyone was pretty bummed out, but the band would be able to play one more set after Elvis had left the park.


The following Sunday, Clare and I went to the Majestic Theater to watch Stripes. We got to the theater and a little late, just before the movie started. As we looked for a place to sit, someone yelled, “Hey there’s that guy who works for The Jerks! Wow, you’re so cool! I love your band!”


Ah, a little taste of fame goes a long way—even if you are just a roadie.

Meet The Jerks – Rock & Roll from America’s Heartland

How I ended up working for a band that had briefly tasted fame (as another band) in the 1970s cannot be told without first looking back at an exciting time in a local music scene. At its most basic and rawest grassroots level, it is what rock and roll has been and will always be about: the musicians and bands playing the bars and club circuit.

The Jerks was comprised of three former members of the legendary Illinois Valley band Buckacre that in the 70s had recorded two albums under the guidance of Glyn Johns and had opened for such performers and bands like Jimmy Buffet and The Outlaws. When Buckacre broke up in the late 70s, two of the band’s founding members guitarist Al Thacker and drummer Dick Verucchi formed a new, hipper band (along with bassist Dave Morgan and guitarist Al Schupp) in tune with the resurgence of live music in local bars.

For a brief period in the 80s, The Jerks, which played mostly New Wave, covers and classic 60s, rock were one of the Illinois Valley’s (an area located along The Illinois River, approximately 90 miles southwest of Chicago in the north-central part of the state) most popular bands drawing enormous crowds wherever they played.

Originally called “Hamburger and the Works” when some people thought the “new wave” music covers they played made them sound like jerks, the name stuck. (Maybe these people who called them “jerks” were some bummed out Buckacre fans.)

The first time I saw the band play at Friday’s Saloon in Peru, Illinois was one cold, wet autumn night in late October 1980.

I was home for the weekend from Southern Illinois University (SIU at Carbondale) and had heard about this band that was quite popular in the Illinois Valley. To be sure, a few days before I came home there was a feature article about The Jerks and other bands in the News Trib, the area’s local newspaper, which among other things described this “resurgence in rock and roll.” Moreover, the reporter of this article pointed out that many local bands were playing the local bar circuit again after disco started to die out in the late 70s. The Jerks, along with other bands like Longshot (whose lineup also included other former members of Buckacre, Dick Hally, Darrel Data, and Les Lockridge) were generating a lot of excitement in the local bar scene in the Illinois Valley.

A few months earlier, The Jerks had been the opening act for The Ozark Mountain Daredevils at Illinois Valley Community College that also had a lot to do with the resurgence of rock and roll in the Illinois Valley. Many people remembered the “Buckacre” days and supported both The Jerks and Longshot.

That weekend I went down to Water Street (appropriately named Water Street because when the Illinois River crested whenever there was a lot of rain or flooding, the street was usually under a foot or two of water) in Peru where one of these bars, Friday’s Saloon was located. It was located in a cluster of buildings at the far end of the street, (past a few factories and other industrial complexes) which also included the Delta Queen and The Red Door Inn, a popular Illinois Valley eatery (now since closed). Rumored to have been a “speakeasy” during Prohibition, Friday’s had become a popular hangout for younger crowds (many who could get in without having their ID’s checked) and was the “official home” of The Jerks.

I guess that’s what made the place special, located on Water Street along the Illinois River, past all these factories. If you were to stand in the street (which at one time had been a brick street) and look east you could see these factories rising up underneath the Peru Bridge (U.S. Route 51, a major North-South artery—before U.S. 39 was completed—ran across the bridge). At night, and especially when it was raining there was an almost surreal aura to the place. This was a working-class neighborhood and I suppose it was only fitting that the three bars located on Water Street—Friday’s, the Delta Queen, and Murphy’s Bar (which had been a grocery store years before) rocked on the weekends.

Whenever The Jerks or Longshot played Friday’s it was an exciting time to be down on Water Street. During the heyday of this “resurgence of live music” in the Illinois Valley, people would be lined up outside waiting to get in. Inside, it was just wall-to-wall people. You had to fight your way through the crowd gathered around the bar to an adjoining room where the bands played. When it got too crowded inside, many people walked across the street to the Whistle Stop, a passenger train car that had been converted into a bar and waited until the crowds thinned out.

I went down to Friday’s early on that Friday night—a little too early because The Jerks had not even taken to the stage yet. The bar was not too crowded; there were only a few people sitting at some tables near the stage. One person in particular stood out. He was standing near the entrance to this second room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was Bruce Kowalski, a.k.a. Bob Noxious. He had his own radio program Alternative Opposites at a local radio station and was known for doing a wicked rendition of “Gloria” with The Jerks. Later, when we got to know each other, we would end up hanging out a lot.

I left early that night before The Jerks even played. However, I was back down at Friday’s the next night, and this time I got there later when the band was playing. For the rest of my life, I will always look back on that night as when I re-discovered rock and roll. I guess it is true what they (whoever they may be) say when the cosmic tumblers click and everything falls into place or maybe it was even an epiphany of sorts because after that night, my life was never the same.

Actually, I had already been really getting into the college music scene at SIU since I started attending classes there in the summer of 1980. SIU was always considered by many to be one of the nation’s top, albeit “unofficial” party schools and when it came to some of the musical acts, which played there, SIU, was bar none. There were always some big-name bands playing either at the university or in some of the bars. That autumn alone, The Pretenders, Elton John, Jeff Beck, The English Beat, and Off Broadway had played on campus; concerts by Kansas, Ultravox, and Polyrock (playing at the legendary bar T.J. McFly’s) would follow in the weeks to come.

I had met some friends for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in La Salle before heading down to Friday’s. With a couple of Mai Tai’s under my belt and a few bottles of beer I was primed for the night and ready for about anything. By the time we got there, the place was packed and jumping. While my friends tried to get served at the bar, I just followed the music, weaving my way through the crowd.

The interior of Friday’s Saloon was long and narrow with a bar that ran the length of the room. Actually, Friday’s was two rooms—part of the wall had been knocked out to make an opening into this adjoining room that was on the right. After pushing and fighting my way through the crowd, I entered this second room that was just as crowded as the first one. The air was heavy with smoke and perfume. A large group of people was standing in the back while others were sitting at tables on either side of the room. The dance floor was packed.

On a small stage at the front of the room The Jerks were playing a cover of a new wave hit by the English band The Vapors. The band was good, but it was the energy of the crowd, which really struck me as I stood there in the back and listened to the music and felt all this energy and excitement.

With a pounding, staccato backbeat and driving guitars, The Jerks were playing high octane rock and roll that had—judging from the way the speakers were swaying back and forth from the vibration of all the dancers on the crowded dancefloor—energized the crowd.

It was then that I noticed one of my old friends from high school, Chris Vasquez who I hadn’t seen in over four years, dancing near the front of the stage. While we were probably not the best of friends when we were in high school (we had only hung out just a few times) we were in a few classes together. Later I would discover that we had once hung out when we were in elementary school.

Suffice to say that night I ran into Chris at Friday’s was the beginning of a very strong friendship that has lasted to this day. We have had our differences now and then, but I can honestly say that Chris has always been able to count on me over the years, even when some of his other “best” friends have turned their backs on him. Who knows, if I had not gone down to Friday’s that night and bumped into Chris we might not have ever become as close as we have.

Chris had already been a regular at Friday’s and following The Jerks whenever and wherever they played in the Illinois Valley. He was just itching to have his own band—and he would in less than a year.

That night, and a few weeks later when I came back home for Thanksgiving hung out at Friday’s again, I could see why The Jerks had become so popular. They were the epitome of any bar band “playing out” weekend after weekend. In the case of Verucchi and Thacker though, they had already tasted success when they were with Buckacre and I often wondered if this popularity was bittersweet for them to return home and play many of the small bars they had played in before? On the other hand, maybe there was still some of that Buckacre magic left and that is why they remained so popular.

Between songs the band would joke and talk with the audience—usually Dick or Alan. Dick was a riot when it came to joking with the audience. He was very personable and well liked, which was also true for Alan. Dave and the other Al were more on the quiet side, perhaps still in awe with the reputation and musical precision Dick and Alan brought to the band.

When I came back home again for Christmas, I was out every night The Jerks were playing. I’ll never forget the day before Christmas Eve when the band was playing at Murphy’s. A snowstorm had hit the area and the streets were practically deserted. There was hardly anyone out that night, but with The Jerks playing, Murphy’s was hopping.

As much as I liked Friday’s when The Jerks played there, Murphy’s was actually a better venue for bands. It was just one big room with a real stage in the back. There was plenty of room to dance and the bands that played there sounded better. The problem with bars like Friday’s and Murphy’s though was the owners really didn’t know how to run a bar and take care of the bands that played there. Sure, the bars made a killing at the door when bands like The Jerks and Longshot played there.

I always found it interesting and perhaps a little ironic that on more than one occasion when both bands were playing on Water Street at Friday’s Saloon and Murphy’s Tap on the same night, some of the guys would walk to the other bar, when their band was on break, and listen to the other band play.

When I think about it now, that one night back in October 1980 would change everything; at least how that night took me down another path that I would end up following for the next couple of years. As ironic and surreal as it may sound, meeting The Jerks changed my life. Had I not gone home that weekend who knows what might have or might not have happened?

Buckacre — Country Rock from America’s Heartland

 

When I was a junior and senior at LaSalle-Peru Township High School 1974-1976 most of the kids hip to the local music scene were raving about this band called Buckacre.

 

A country rock band, Buckacre’s music was a cross between Poco and Buffalo Springfield with a bit of the Eagles and maybe a hint of The James Gang thrown in for good measure. From the way a lot of people were talking and raving about this band, including my best friend Chris Vasquez, they were going places—literally, because in 1976 they went to London to record the first of two albums for MCA with legendary producer Glyn Johns (he worked with bands from The Beatles and The Who to the Eagles and The Steve Miller Band).

 

Touted as the next Eagles, following the release of Morning Comes, the band returned to the States and began to tour in the southeast opening for such acts as The Outlaws and Jimmy Buffet and for awhile was the back up band for Hee Haw’s the Hager Brothers when the twin brothers performed concerts.

 

By the end of the 70s, the band like many bands had their differences about their musical direction and while on the road, the band split up.

 

In the fall of 1980, I met two former members of Buckacre—Dick Verucchi and Alan Thacker—who had formed The Jerks along with Dave Morgan (he had played bass for Buckacre right before the band broke up) and Al Schupp. A few months later I was roadying for the band and would continue to do so up until 1982. (Interestingly, their equipment truck had once belonged to The Outlaws.)

 

Other members of Buckacre, Les Lockridge and Dick Hally also returned to the Illinois Valley and formed their band Longshot; Darrel Data eventually relocated to Seattle. I always found it interesting and perhaps a little ironic that on more than one occasion when both bands were playing on Water Street at Friday’s Saloon and Murphy’s Tap on the same night, some of the guys would walk to the other bar, when the band was on break, and listen to the other band play.

 

I have to confess that I never really gave Buckacre a listen to until years later, when one day, in 1988 while I was browsing in a used record store in Burlington, Iowa I came across their two albums. I was too busy listening to other music at the time and you know how that goes—sometimes you just don’t listen to the music. I only have one track now “Love Never Lasts Forever” that gets a lot of playing time on my iPod. Sadly, it is the only track available on CD that can be found on Crossing Paths—music from the Illinois Valley. I highly recommend this CD.

 

In 1982, Dick Verucchi and I were sitting in his van outside Murphy’s Bar on Water Street in Peru, Illinois (it is no longer there; now it is the Waterfront Saloon) listening to this new group called The Blasters—who’s music could best be described as a blend of rockabilly, rock, punk rock and rhythm and blues.

 

“This could have been us Sparks,” Dick said as we listened to one of the songs. “Had we stayed together as Buckacre this might have been the music we could have been playing.”

 

Dick Verucchi is still “playing out” in the Illinois Valley in the band Wake The Sheep; Dick Hally and Al Schupp are also playing music with local bands.

 

Maybe it’s only another rock and roll story about a band briefly tasting fame and so close to breaking out, but it’s a little personal for me having known some of the band members and having worked for them.

Knee-high by the 4th of July

It was back in the summer of 1981, right around this time in late June and I was riding in a van with Dick Verucchi and Alan Thacker on our way to Dixon, Illinois for a gig at a youth center. The owner of the youth center knew Dick and Alan from their Buckacre days and had been trying to get them—now as The Jerks—to play in Dixon for some time.

 

That was the summer—that rock and roll summer—of roadying for The Jerks, hanging out with Chris, going to Chicago Fest, and later a road trip to Atlanta.

 

As we drove to Dixon that hot, humid, summer afternoon, crisscrossing through America’s heartland of corn and soybean fields, Dick remarked that the corn seemed a bit taller than usual for this time of the summer.

 

“I remember growing up and listening to old timers say, ‘knee high by the Fourth’ but it’s not the way anymore,” said Dick. “Look at that corn out there, Sparks. That’s some mighty tall corn for June.”

 

“What do you think is the reason?” I asked, wondering if this was either another Dick Verucchi joke, or if he was really serious.

 

It wasn’t a joke. And Dick wasn’t really being that serious. He was just talking about corn and that it just seemed taller than in the past.

 

Today I was wondering what I’d be writing about or blogging about if I were back home right now? Would I be thinking about going on the road to Dixon with The Jerks and writing about Dick’s quip about the corn? Or would I be writing about another time and another place?

 

Sometimes when I am thinking about what I am going to write my mind and my soul begin to wander and invariably I am brought back to the Midwest; brought back to places like Cherry, Oglesby, and LaSalle three towns that I grew up in before I left home once and for all (or so I thought), but three towns that I still call home.

 

I guess it’s only natural to want to go back in your mind; kind of like some invisible umbilical cord to your past. But it’s more than that. It’s more than being a little wistful. It’s more than waxing nostalgic.

 

The death of one of my childhood friends this past week brought me closer to “back home” and reminded me of my humble roots. It really shook the tree as it were and made me think about “home” a lot.

 

I was thinking that if I were back home right now, how much I would love to go for a ride in the country. Of course, that is some really wistful thinking—not just for me, but for anyone back home with the price of gas the way it is now—but I was thinking how nice and perhaps how romantic it would be to head down some lonely stretch of blacktop, between the fields of corn and soybeans with the windows rolled down.

 

Perhaps in the distance there would be some giant gray and black thunderheads rolling in from the west. Maybe you know the kind I am talking about, this amorphous rumpled black and gray mass of clouds filling the sky and reaching to the heavens. And if so, I’d probably be able to detect a hint of the impending rain in the stifling afternoon heat.

 

And later, if I could still find one somewhere, I would sit outside a Tastee Freeze with its yellow and pink neon framed against the night and enjoy a banana split or maybe—as that John Mellencamp mantra about Jack and Diane went—sucking on a chili dog.

 

And just about then, with those storm clouds overhead and mottled purple flashes and streaks of lightning shooting across the sky, you could feel the night getting cooler and smell that rain in the air and hear crickets chirping away—sounding the alarm before the first crack of thunder resonates across the land.

 

And you know, right now that would seem more exotic and charming than all the Golden Buddhas, mountain temples, and ancient Khmer ruins that I can see over here.

 

I haven’t had my fill yet of these things because I a migratory bird by nature and I need to see what is out there to report, document, catalog, interpret and understand. You know, the unexamined life is not worth living and all that stuff.

 

I am happy that I have had both worlds as it were, but right now this Friday evening in Korea I am wondering if the corn is already knee-high back home in Illinois.

On the road with The Jerks — Part 3

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When it came to playing out—whether on the road or in one of the bars in La Salle-Peru—the band had a lot of equipment, which required a truck to get to wherever they were playing. The truck used to belong to The Outlaws, a group that Buckacre had opened for in the late 70s. It was just another one of those rock and roll connections and links (not to mention relics) that the band had with the past.


A lot of the equipment was from their Buckacre days including this very sweet, and very large 24-channel Yamaha mixing board. That was a real bear to unload and load into the truck. Usually took three of us to roll it off the truck or to roll it back in. It was even more of a bear to move when we had to haul it up a flight of stairs at some of the clubs we played at like this youth center in Dixon and Mabel’s in Champaign. Then it would take four of us to carry it up (after we had taken it out of the equally bulky and heavy road case).


One hot, summer afternoon we were unloading equipment at Friday’s when we noticed the Julia Belle Swain, this authentic riverboat slowly steaming up the Illinois River on its way from Peoria to Starved Rock State Park. That summer the owners of the Julia Belle Swain were offering these weekly riverboat excursions up and down the Illinois River and had even brought in famed bluegrass artist John Hartford (who was a licensed riverboat pilot) to pilot the ship on its journey from Peoria to Starved Rock.


We knew that John Hartford was piloting the Julia Belle Swain, so when it passed Friday’s on the river, we yelled his name. Sure enough, he was in the pilothouse and could hear us yelling and see us waving. He answered with a few short bursts of the steam whistle.


(Years later, when I was listening to the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack there was this one track that I really liked a lot. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was by John Hartford. Just hearing that track and putting one and one together got me thinking about the summer of 1981 and waxing nostalgic. I quickly ordered a couple of his CDs and have been a big fan of his music ever since. Sadly, John Hartford passed away in 2001.)

 

After my first trip with the band to Peoria there was another one-night gig at a youth center in Dixon, Illinois. There would another date at the Second Chance as well as T.J. McFly’s in Carbondale (that was a lot of fun heading back to SIU and seeing some of my old friends like Paul Collin) before the highlight of the summer: a two-week road trip. We started off in Peoria at the Second Chance and from there we went to Carbondale and then on to Atlanta. For Al and Dick it was the first time that he put together this kind of tour/road trip since the days of Buckacre. The weeklong gig in Atlanta was a sweet deal arranged by some guy that had once managed Buckacre when they were playing the Georgia-Florida circuit in the 70s.


I think in many ways it was a bit of a vacation for the band, but also I think it was the thrill of being on the road again. I am sure Dick and Al missed being on the road and playing to different crowds. They really enjoyed playing music so much. It was their life ever since they performed together in their first band Rain.


After we finished playing at the Second Chance, we drove straight down to Carbondale. It was right before school started at SIU, so the whole town was buzzing with activity as thousands of students came back which meant the bar scene was going to be quite wild. Like the first time we played in Carbondale, we were back again at T.J. McFly’s, which was located on the main strip, just north of the train and bus station. Rumor had it that Jim Belushi was once the manager of the bar.


It was the largest bar in Carbondale with two rooms for bands to play in as well as a “beer garden” outside. When we played there for the first time earlier that summer, we were in the larger of the two rooms. At the same time we were there, Gary Clemons and Colors, a band out of Peoria was playing in the smaller room. How The Jerks managed to play the larger venue—when Clemons’ tour that summer was sponsored by Warner Brothers’ Records—was one of those rock and roll idiosyncrasies I guess. Maybe there was still some of that old Buckacre magic left.


T.J. McFly’s had arranged hotel accommodations for us, but when we got down there to Carbondale, we had to wait for another band to check out. Obviously they had been up all night partying so they were a bit slow in checking out that morning. So, there we were in the parking lot, waiting for our rooms. When those guys finally got out of their rooms and started loading up their gear in a van, the two bands in the parking lot were like two ships passing in the night.


Dick and Tom knew some of the guys (Tom it seemed always knew somebody that we met on the road; he had also been a drummer with the band Ken Carlyle and the Cadillac Cowboys and had played in bars and clubs throughout Illinois), and was the case when bands ran into each other, some road stories and other pleasantries were exchanged.


“Where are you guys headed?”


“Where going to Mabel’s.”


“Yeah, that’s not a bad gig. We played there before. Good crowds.”


“What happened to so-and-so?”


“He’s with another band now.”


“You guys ever get back to the studio?”


“Maybe later this year.”


“How long you guys on the road for?”


“Just a few weeks, then just play around town.”


“Good turnout here?”


“Not bad. Guess you guys are getting here just in time. School starts in a few days. Should be pretty wild, huh?”


And then they were back on the road and we checked into our rooms.


When we were in Carbondale earlier that summer, it had been pretty quiet, but with school starting in a few days, the nights the band played at the bar were really wild. For students coming back to school, it probably doesn’t make any difference who’s playing, just as long as the drink specials keep on coming.


Of course, The Jerks were a good bar band. They were as probably good if not better than most bands playing the same bars and clubs they did in 1980-1982. As musicians they were tight—really tight. One wonders if they had been a few years younger, they could have gotten out of the bar/college circuit and landed bigger gigs. One time, Dick and I were listening to a song by this new band, “The Blasters” in his van outside Murphy’s in Peru, Illinois before a gig that summer.


“This could have been us Sparks,” Dick said. “This is the kind of music that we could have been playing after Buckacre broke up.”


Having attended classes at SIU the previous year, it was nice to be back in Carbondale again. Actually, I had thought about returning to school that year, but I was having so much fun “finding myself” as it were, I was in no hurry to get back to school.


One night after we played, some of the bartenders in the bar invited us to some parties in this part of town called Lewis Park. That was pretty wild. One thing about college towns like Carbondale was you could just walk up to any house or apartment where there was a party going on and walk in. Al, who was really into The Beatles, heard one of their songs being played in someone’s apartment and just walked right in and helped himself to whatever alcohol was available.


The band played three nights in Carbondale—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and then it was on the road again to Atlanta.

 

Oh, Atlanta.

 

 

 

The Jerks on Vinyl

 

On the road with The Jerks — Part 2

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I officially started working with The Jerks in the summer of 1981. I had taken some time off school (okay, I dropped out for awhile) and was pretty much just filling in the time before I went back to school (bumming around with Chris and listening to music).

Chris and I had talked about forming a band and we dreamed about how we could get jobs at Caterpillar in Pontiac, Illinois to buy equipment. Chris’ father—a distinguished guitarist in his own right—even started giving us guitar lessons. Unfortunately, I just lacked the musical talent to play the guitar. Kind of felt a little bit like John Lennon’s friend Stu Sutcliffe when he tried to play the bass for the Beatles.

When The Jerks were not playing at one of the more popular venues in the Illinois Valley, they would often go on the road and play some gigs at places like the Second Chance in Peoria. That was a real sweet venue, a holdover from the 70’s when a lot of these large-sized clubs opened when disco was the rave, but it also doubled as a concert hall for bands.

(There was also a smaller Second Chance in Carbondale; in 1983, it was Carbondale’s unofficial gay bar, but still brought in some bands like The Suburbs.)

By now I had gotten to know the guys in the band pretty well and asked them if I could go with them when they played one of these out of town gigs. I didn’t have anything else going on (Chris had by now given up on me ever learning how to play the guitar) and I thought it would be cool to see what it was like to be “on the road” as it were with the band.

I soon found out how cool and interesting it was when I rode down to Peoria with Dick and Al. They had all these stories about when they were in Buckacre—traveling on the road, the bands they opened for, and the people they got to meet. Listening to them reminisce was like hearing a mini living history of rock and roll. And maybe that was when I first started yearning to travel again; to be on the open road heading somewhere, anywhere.

“Remember that time when we were in the studio in London and Pete Townsend walked in to talk to Glyn Johns,” said Dick one time. “Remember how so-and-so’s jaw dropped when he saw Townsend standing there in the booth? I thought he was going to piss himself because he was so excited.”

I would get to hear a lot of “road stories” all those times I traveled with either Dick or Al or when the two of them got together.

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“Telstar”? “Bionic Man”? “Mr. Mike”?

And it wasn’t just all these road stories, either. These guys were having fun when they were on the road. There was a bit of camaraderie and a lot of joking going around. Dick was always the funniest of them all. He had a wicked sense of humor and loved to joke with everyone.

Early one morning after the band had played at the Second Chance in Peoria, we were taking Al Schupp the rhythm guitarist back to his home. Al lived in this wooded, lowland area just outside of Spring Valley (sometimes referred to as “Sleepy Hollow”) and to get there, we had to drive down this winding, narrow, gravel road, which passed this old cemetery. Dick was driving his van and as we passed the cemetery, he reached out the window with his left hand and banged on the side of the van startling us in back that had been dozing off. That was the same night when Dick joked with Al Schupp calling him “Icabod” Schupp because of where he lived.

When we got to the Second Chance that first time I went with the band, I thought I was just going to hang out with Tom Joliffe their soundman after we had everything set up. Al and Dick had other ideas. Turns out the Second Chance had this lighting system for bands, which was located in a booth above the third floor of the club, way up in the back. Al asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing the lighting—basically turning up and down the lights at the beginning and the ending of their sets—and that is how I got started running the lights for the band.

It wasn’t until a week later, while I was visiting Clare my DJ lady friend at a local radio station when I knew that I was officially working for the band. Al must have known that I was going to be there because he stopped in at the radio station to give me a check for the night that I had run the lights. It was seventy-five dollars for a few hours work.

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Oglesby Celebration Days. The Italian Elvis hadn’t left the park

That summer and fall of 1981 was a wild and exciting time to be in the Illinois Valley and to go on the road with The Jerks. I think things started to really happen a few weeks before on my birthday when Chris, Dave “Bodine” Morgan the bass player for The Jerks and some female friends went to a “50’s Revival Concert” held in the Matthiessen Auditorium at La Salle-Peru Township High School. We were pretty vocal when Bobby Lewis, The Drifters, and the Reagents played that night. At one point during the concert, Bobby Lewis asked to have the house lights turned up so he could see the people doing all the cheering. Alan was also there and ran across the street to his apartment to fetch a Bobby Lewis album for him to sign.

Back then, most of the bars that had live entertainment usually had bands on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. On the other nights, a lot of us would hang out at Friday’s Saloon. One time, Bodine and I had to go to Champaign to pick up some JBL monitors for the band. Once back in the Illinois Valley though, our first stop was Friday’s. Almost every night that I was there, we would keep on drinking and partying into the early hours of the morning and then, if we were up for it, we would usually head up to the Golden Bear Restaurant to satisfy whatever hunger pangs we had. For me, it was usually a Patty Melt or a Rueben Sandwich.

You know, when I think about it, the summer of 1981 was kind of like being in college without having to go to class.

The Jerks did not go on the road that much, maybe once or twice at the beginning of that summer. The real money was made at Friday’s or 3 N’ Company. They were always guaranteed a good take at the door and they packed in the crowds whenever they played.

One of the highlights of that summer occurred in June when they played at the Oglesby Celebration Days. It was this five-day event of music, food, 10km race (which had national notoriety) and a carnival. It was only their third concert in the Illinois Valley that was open to the general public. There were a lot of teenagers who had heard of The Jerks, but had been unable to see them.

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Bodine

The only thing was, The Jerks would not be the only band playing that night. On the main stage that night was “The Italian Elvis” and The Jerks would be on a smaller stage. They would go on first, followed by “The Italian Elvis” and finally they would play again.

After we got set up, Al asked me if I wouldn’t mind introducing the band. He thought it would go over well with the large crowd already gathered in front of the stage. I even got to choose the band’s first song of the set: a rocking rendition of “Hey Little Girl” originally recorded by the Syndicate of Sound and later updated by The Deadboys.

“Say something really raunchy and wicked,” Al said before I walked out on stage.

And that’s what I did, remembering how the band KISS was introduced on their KISS Alive album.

jerks004Tom Joliffe — soundman

“Alright…alright, you wanted the raunchiest and you got the raunchiest,” I screamed into the microphone, “the raunchiest, rocking-est band in the Illinois Valley…THE JERKS!”

And then as Al hit the first chord on his 12-string Rickenbacker, I leaped into the crowd and started dancing.

Chris was there, as were a few other regulars from Friday’s and they joined me. However, a few songs later, the power went out. By the time, the power could be brought back on; it was time for “The Italian Elvis” to take to the stage. Everyone was pretty bummed out, but the band would be able to play one more set after Elvis had left the park.

The following Sunday, I went to the Majestic Theater with Clare to watch Stripes. We got to the theater and a little late, just before the movie started. As we looked for a place to sit, someone yelled, “Hey there’s that guy in The Jerks! Wow, you’re so cool!”

Ah, a little taste of fame goes a long way—even if you are just a roadie.

On the Road with The Jerks — Part 1

For almost a year in the early 80s I was sort of a roadie and light technician for The Jerks, a rock band in the Illinois Valley.

How I ended up working for a band that had briefly tasted fame (as another band) in the 70s cannot be told without first looking back at an exciting time in a local music scene. At it’s most basic and rawest grassroots level, it is what rock and roll or any kind of music that is played by musicians day in and day out in small clubs and bars is all about. 

The Jerks was comprised of three former members of the legendary Illinois Valley band Buckacre that in the 70s had recorded two albums under the guidance of Glyns John and had opened for such performers and bands like Jimmy Buffet and The Outlaws. When Buckacre broke up in the late 70s, two of the band’s founding members guitarist Al Thacker and drummer Dick Verucchi formed a new, hipper band in tune with the resurgence of live music in local bars. 

For a brief period in the 80s, The Jerks, which played mostly New Wave covers and classic 60s rock were one of the Illinois Valley’s most popular bands drawing enormous crowds wherever they played. Originally called “Hamburger and the Works” when some people thought the “new wave” music covers they played made them sound like jerks, the name stuck. 

The first time I saw the band play at Friday’s Saloon in Peru, Illinois was one cold, wet autumn night in late October 1980. I was home for the weekend from Southern Illinois University (SIU at Carbondale) and had heard about this band that was quite popular in the Illinois Valley. To be sure, a few days before I came home there was a feature article about The Jerks and other bands in The Daily News Tribune, which among other things described a “resurgence in rock and roll.”

According to this article many local bands were playing the local bar circuit again after disco started to die out in the late 70s. The Jerks, along with other bands like Longshot (which was comprised of the other former members of Buckacre) were generating a lot of excitement in the local bar scene in the Illinois Valley. 

That weekend I went down to Water Street (appropriately named Water Street because when the Illinois River crested whenever there was a lot of rain or flooding, the street was usually under a foot or two of water) in Peru where one of these bars, Friday’s Saloon was located. It was located in a cluster of buildings at the far end of the street, (past a few factories and other industrial complexes) which also included the Delta Queen and The Red Door Inn, a popular Illinois Valley eatery (now since closed). Rumored to have been a “speakeasy” during Prohibition, Friday’s had become a popular hangout for younger crowds (many who could get in without having their ID’s checked) and was the “official home” of The Jerks. 

I guess that’s what made the place special, located on Water Street along the Illinois River, past all these factories. If you were to stand in the street (which at one time had been a brick street) and look east you could see these factories rising up underneath the Peru Bridge (U.S. Route 51, a major North-South artery—before U.S. 39 was completed—ran across the bridge). At night, and especially when it was raining there was an almost surreal aura to the place. This was a working-class neighborhood and I suppose it was only fitting that the three bars located on Water Street—Friday’s, the Delta Queen, and Murphy’s Bar (which had been a grocery store years before) rocked on the weekends.

Whenever The Jerks or Longshot played Friday’s it was an exciting time to be down on Water Street. During the heyday of this “resurgence of live music” in the Illinois Valley, people would be lined up outside waiting to get in. Inside, it was just wall-to-wall people. You had to fight your way through the crowd gathered around the bar to an adjoining room where the bands played.

When it got too crowded inside, many people walked across the street to the Whistle Stop, a passenger train car which had been converted into a bar and waited until the crowds thinned out. 

I got to Friday’s too early that Friday night in October; The Jerks had not even taken to the stage yet. The bar was not too crowded; there were only a few people sitting at some tables near the stage. One person in particular stood out. He was standing near the entrance to this second room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was Bruce Kowalski, a.k.a. Bob Noxious. He had his own radio program “Alternative Opposites” at a local radio station and was known for doing a wicked rendition of “Gloria” with The Jerks. Later, when we got to know each other, we would end up hanging out a lot. 

I left early that night before The Jerks even played. However, I was back down at Friday’s the next night, and this time I got there later when the band was playing. For the rest of my life, I will always look back on that night as when I re-discovered rock and roll. I guess it is true what they (whoever they may be) say when the cosmic tumblers click and everything falls into place or maybe it was even an epiphany of sorts because after that night, my life was never the same. 

Actually, I had already been really getting into the college music scene at SIU since I started attending classes there in the summer of 1980. SIU was always considered by many to be one of the nation’s top, albeit “unofficial” party schools and when it came to some of the musical acts which played there, SIU was bar none. There were always some big-name bands playing either at the university or in some of the bars. That autumn alone, The Pretenders, Elton John, Jeff Beck, The English Beat, and Off Broadway had played on campus; concerts by Kansas, Ultravox, and Polyrock (playing at the legendary bar T.J. McFly’s) would follow in the weeks to come. 

Additionally, there were some pretty hip and cool bands like David and the Happenings playing some of the local bars. 

I had met some friends for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in La Salle before heading down to Friday’s. With a couple of Mai Tai’s under my belt and a few bottles of beer I was primed for the night and ready for about anything. By the time we got there, the place was packed and jumping. While my friends tried to get served at the bar, I just followed the music, weaving my way through the crowd. 

Inside the adjoining room the air was heavy with smoke and perfume. A large group of people was standing in the back while others were sitting at tables on either side of the room. The dance floor was crowded. On a small stage at the front of the room The Jerks were playing a cover of a new wave hit by the English band The Vapors.

The band was good, but it was the energy of the crowd, which really struck me as I stood there in the back and listened to the music and felt all this energy and excitement. It was then that I noticed one of my old friends from high school, Chris Vasquez who I hadn’t seen in over four years, dancing near the front of the stage. While we were probably not the best of friends when we were in high school (we had only hung out just a few times) we were in a few classes together. Later I would discover that we had once hung out when we were in elementary school. 

Suffice to say that night I ran into Chris at Friday’s was the beginning of a very strong friendship that has lasted to this day. We have had our differences now and then, but I can honestly say that Chris has always been able to count on me over the years, even when some of his other “best” friends have turned their backs on him. Who knows, if I had not gone down to Friday’s that night and bumped into Chris we might not have ever become as close as we have. 

Chris had already been a regular at Friday’s and following The Jerks whenever and wherever they played in the Illinois Valley. It was hanging out with Chris that weekend and again in November when I was home for Thanksgiving, which allowed me to become somewhat of a fixture in the music scene. I’ve never fancied myself as a trendsetter or anything, but I am sure that I probably brought a little of that SIU New Wave scene with me when I was back in the Illinois Valley. 

Looking back, it was all just a lot of fashion—I was never much of a punk—and I suppose some people would have written me off as some poseur. Throw on some vintage shirt and a skinny tie with a few New Wave pins on a black suit jacket and you were dressed for the evening. Maybe if there were any saving grace it might have been that I was really into the music scene at SIU and a lot of the wildness that went along. 

When I came back home again for Christmas, I was out every night The Jerks were playing. I’ll never forget the day before Christmas Eve when the band was playing at Murphy’s. A snowstorm had hit the area and the streets were practically deserted. There was hardly anyone out that night, but with The Jerks playing, Murphy’s was hopping. 

As much as I liked Friday’s when The Jerks played there, Murphy’s was actually a better venue for bands. It was just one big room with a real stage in the back. There was plenty of room to dance and the bands that played there sounded better. The problem with bars like Friday’s and Murphy’s though was the owners really didn’t know how to run a bar and take care of the bands that played there. Sure, the bars made a killing at the door when bands like The Jerks and Longshot played there. 

What’s most interesting is how that one night back in October would change everything; at least how that night took me down another path that I would end up following for the next couple of years. Had I not gone home that weekend who knows what might have or might not have happened. 

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