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?”
“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.