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?