Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Dick Verucchi (page 1 of 2)

Some more Buckacre, please

morning comesCame across this really slick Website today courtesy of a high school acquaintance who I haven’t seen since high school and who I recently reconnected with via this blog.

It’s a site devoted to Southern Rock with two posts devoted to Buckacre.

I like the comments a person left on one of the posts about having run into one of the band members:

Buckacre “Morning comes” was a favorite as a kid and could never find it. I was one stall over from one of them at the Rock Island Arsenal restroom once. Gotta thank you for forwarding this stuff.

It’s always a treat when you come across like something like this on the web. Thanks Don for the link!

Remembering Les Lockridge — 1947-2010

Yesterday morning (Wednesday in Korea) I was catching up with what had happened on the other side of the world when I get a message from John Piontek via Facebook that Les Lockridge, former member of Buckacre had passed away after battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

I’ve written a few blog posts about Buckacre–the most recent one, a review of their CD Buckacre Live at the Circus Bar–and wanted to write a sort of tribute to Les and his life. Almost all of my Facebook friends from the Illinois Valley either grew up listening to Buckacre, had seen the band live, or knew the band members individually. Although I didn’t know Les as well as other people did and certainly not as well as I knew Dick Verucchi and Al Thacker, two other members of the band that I got to know when I helped out with The Jerks, when you are part of the Illinois Valley music scene, whether you are a musician or fan, everyone knows everyone and you all sort of grow up together.

I wrote this tribute with that in mind and then I decided to send it to the News Trib in LaSalle, Illinois. Who knows, maybe they would print it.

They did.

Thank you.

Remembering Les Lockridge

This morning (Wednesday in Korea), I received the sad news, via a message on Facebook from one of my friends from the Illinois Valley that Les Lockridge, a former member of Buckacre had passed away.

Within minutes, messages, comments, and videos were uploaded on Facebook as many people remembered Les and expressed their sorrow as well as their thoughts and prayers for his family. News travels fast in cyberspace and suddenly, people from all parts of the world were all connected, brought together by the friend and musician they knew and the music they enjoyed.

I did not know Les as well as some people knew him; I never had the chance to see and hear Buckacre live back in the Circus Lounge days or when they played on the road, but when I heard that he had passed away yesterday after battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) I felt as though I had lost a very dear and close friend.

I suppose it was because so many of my friends back in the Illinois Valley knew Les either before or during his Buckacre days or after, when he stopped playing out and raised a family. To be sure, back in the 1970s, almost everyone who was vaguely familiar with music in the Illinois Valley had heard of Buckacre one of the Illinois Valley’s most famous and popular bands—whose music still resonates today. And it was Buckacre and the music that so many people knew Les.

I first met Les back in 1981 when I was helping out The Jerks, another popular band from the Illinois Valley. One summer afternoon, Dick Verucchi and I were setting up the band’s equipment in Friday’s Saloon in Peru when Les came in to talk to Dick. I had heard of Les as well as the other members of the Buckacre, but this was the first time I had the chance to meet him. He just came across as this friendly and likable guy, the kind of person who would take the time out of the day to stop and chat with you and I am sure that everyone who knew Les over the years as a friend and as a musician felt the same way.

Although my musical tastes at the time ran in opposite directions of the kind of music that Buckacre was famous for, a few years later while browsing in a used record store in Burlington, Iowa, I found copies of Buckacre’s two albums and finally got around to listening to them for the first time. I finally could hear why so many people had raved about the band.

A few years ago, I had the chance to listen to Buckacre again, this time one of the band’s more popular tracks, “Love Never Lasts Forever” on the compilation CD Crossing Paths. Every so often, I would surf the Internet hoping that MCA would re-release the band’s records on CD.

Then, about two years ago, I happened across a Buckacre video on YouTube and not only did I step back in time but I felt I had gone home. There was Les and the boys singing. It was this wonderful time capsule and I quickly uploaded the video to my blog and wrote about the band and the Illinois Valley.

Perhaps it was out of a feeling of nostalgia or for other people wanting to get in touch with their past, but that little blog post got a lot of hits and comments from people who had grown up listening to Buckacre or who had known Les and the rest of the band.

Then many of us learned the sad news last year that Les was battling ALS. A fundraiser was held and family, friends, and local musicians gathered to help out Les and his family. The fundraiser also coincided with the release of Buckacre Live at the Circus CD with proceeds from the sale of the CD going to Les and his family.

This morning in Korea though, when my friend sent me a message via Facebook that Les had passed away, my whole world stopped revolving for a moment as I took time out to remember Les and to say a prayer for his family. He will be missed by so many and I am fortunate that I had the chance to know him, even briefly but more so through his music. Thanks for the great set Les.

How did you end up in Korea? Part 1: Lost Luggage, Digestive Crackers, and David Letterman

“I turned left at Japan.”

When you decide to leave your country and travel halfway around the world to live and work-in my case to teach English in Korea-there are some things that you are never going to forget about your experience abroad and your life as an expat.

It goes without saying that for every foreigner who has set foot in Korea to live and work a universal chord is struck by what we all have in common. Whether it was getting accustomed to a new culture (with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies), attempting to speak the language, as well as making new friendships and enjoying a lifestyle commensurate with our professional and personal pursuits, much of what we might remember fondly is of this shared experience.

On the other hand, for better or worse, there are other things of a more personal nature, which will always remind us of the time, we spent in Korea. For me-after living and working in Korea for 19 years (and still counting)-one thing that will forever stand out most was my first week here and how I ended up in Korea in the first place.

“How did you end up in Korea?” asked an acquaintance who I had not seen since 1984 and who I had recently reconnected with on Facebook.

“I turned left at Japan,” I replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.

(In the movie, John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “We turned left at Greenland.”)

One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country. To be sure, if you were to have asked me prior to 1988, which Korea was the Communist one, who Kim Il-sung was, or where Korea was located specifically in Northeast Asia, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get all three right.

I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles had fought in the Korean War, my high school friend “LJ” had learned Taekwondo in the 70’s, and I had (until he decided to return home) a Korean roommate when I was at college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, for most people our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from the popular TV show M*A*S*H.

On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there was some disaster or tragedy like the USS Pueblo seizure in 1968, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976, Koreagate, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80’s.

Despite these international events our knowledge about Korea was limited. Even the Korean War, which was for all semantic purposes a substitute for World War III, had sadly been called “the forgotten war.” Even my two uncles who had fought in it never talked about it.

Of course, the world would learn much about South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics that could be best described as one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people.

Korea was not some place that you just heard about one day and decided that is where you wanted to go. No, Korea was a place that you had to have heard about somewhere from someone who had either been there or knew someone that had. People just didn’t end up here by accident. Fate maybe, but not by chance.

Two years after the Seoul Olympics, I found myself in Korea to teach English. I had not intended to teach in Korea when I graduated from graduate school in 1989. After a year in Japan and a semester teaching ESL at a community college in my hometown, all I could think about was getting back to Asia. Call it the lure of the Orient or something that I had to get out of my system before I could get on with my life, I applied for teaching positions at various schools in Asia.

One day, out of the blue I get a call from a language school recruiter in Culver City, California asking me if I wanted to teach in Korea.

“There’s a position opening up at a school in Seoul in December right before Christmas,” she said. “Are you interested?”

Before she had a chance to finish, I had already made up my mind.

I was going to Korea.

Yeah, I guess it was fate after all.

I arrived in Seoul on a cool, clammy Friday night in December 1990 just two weeks before Christmas. For some, traveling to another country around the holidays to begin work might be a little depressing, but I was too pumped up to feel depressed. The recruiter, who had phoned me back in October and offered me the job, told me that I would be too excited to feel depressed. She was right.

Then again, I had spent the previous Christmas in Japan and there were the two Christmases I had spent in Panama back in 1976 and 1977, so the holidays were not much of a problem.

The only problem, at least after I had arrived in Korea was going to be a change of underwear. I’ll get back to this later.

I had left Chicago the day before at 7:00 in the morning on my way to Seattle and then on to Seoul. The day before I left was a bit of a trip down memory lane. I had lunch with Dick Verucchi at the House of Hunan in Peru, bumped into Steve Stout there, went to Vallero’s Bakery in Dalzell (“you know, they eat dog in Korea, don’t you?” Dick said) on a bread run for Verucchi’s Ristorante and later that day, hung out with LJ who quizzed me on the Korean flag.

I had to get up to O’Hare early in the morning and my friend Mary Sue Hurley drove me up. It’s sad and ironic when you look back and realize that on what would end up being one of the major turning points of your life, would also be the last time you would see some very special people in your life.

If you had traveled to Korea prior to March 2001 when the new Incheon Airport opened, then you had to go through Seoul’s Kimpo Airport.

What I remember most about Kimpo that night, and all the other times I flew in and out of there, was how dreary and archaic it was. There’s no question that Kimpo was an obvious testament to Korea’s rapid economic development in the 70’s, but still had this sort of “developing nation” feel to it. Even though Korea had hosted the Olympics just two years earlier, one really felt as though they had stepped back into time-back to the 70s-when you had to go through Kimpo.

I have flown in and out of Korea countless times over the years, and usually when you go through immigration formalities, the immigration officials hardly utter more than a sentence or two, if that. However, on that night the immigration official asked me for a stick of gum. Well, it was more like “give me a stick of gum,” but have to give the guy credit for trying out his language skills.

“Mmm… Juicy Fruit,” he said.

If my first night in Korea was going to be a memorable one, it was not going to get off to a good start when I soon discovered that my luggage had been lost.

Great, I thought. I start work on Monday and I don’t have any clean clothes to wear.

After waiting until the last bags from my flight had been unloaded and filling out some forms, one of the ground staff assured me that my luggage would arrive in a day or two. It didn’t.

I wasn’t alone. A few other passengers, who had flown out of Chicago with me on Northwest, were also missing their luggage. I should have known there was going to be a problem when I checked in and noticed that the luggage conveyor belt was broken and the luggage had to be carried downstairs by the Northwest staff. Well, that sort of thing is just begging for a problem to happen.

I was not the only teacher arriving that night. There were three other teachers who would be joining the ELS Kangnam (a district in Seoul, referred to as a Gu in Korean, south of the Han River) school staff (one more was due in from Thailand a few days later). After we had met, we got in a van and headed to Chamsil (located very close to Olympic Park), which would be my home for the next two years.

Say what you will about the pitfalls of the hogwon (institute) system in Korea, (there have been countless horror stories of teachers coming to Korea and after being met at the airport being handed a book and told that their students were waiting for them in some crowded classroom) but ELS, at least back then took very good care of its teachers and made it very comfortable for a person to come to Korea to teach, especially when it came to your accommodations.

(ELS, which was based out of California had schools and franchises around the world. The three ELS schools in South Korea in 1990 were owned by Sisa-Yong-o-sa, at the time, Korea’s largest English book publisher; now it is called YBM Sisa.)

The school put us up in these rather spacious apartments in Chamsil not far from Olympic Sports Complex and only meters away from the sprawling Lotte World shopping and entertainment complex.

Back in 1990, Lotte World was one of Seoul’s major attractions that had everything from a classy hotel, department store, and indoor swimming pool to Lotte Adventure, an obvious Disneyland rip-off. The owner of this entertainment Mecca had supposedly gotten his start by making chewing gum in Japan that was another blatant rip-off, in this case of Wrigley’s gum calling his knock-off version of Wrigley’s “Juicy Fruit” – “Juicy and Fresh.”

As for Lotte’s theme park, instead of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, Lotte had characters patterned after raccoons-Lotty Raccoon and Lorrie Raccoon; problem was there are no raccoons in Korea, at least I have never seen one, not unless of course you count those two lovable raccoons prancing around at Lotte World.

The apartments were starting to look a little rundown back then (the housing complex was leveled a few years ago and new apartment buildings have already gone up), but if you didn’t mind the rats scurrying above in the crawl space and the black soot from people still burning yontan (cylinder-shaped, coal-like briquettes used for heating) which darkened the walls, it wasn’t too bad of a place to call home, especially when you didn’t have to pay any rent.

That night, I was the last person to be taken to an apartment. I remember standing outside and having a smoke and listening to the steady drone of traffic speeding along Olympic Expressway. The housing complex had this “gulag” feel to it, row after row of apartment buildings all looking the same with a central heating plant located in the center.

I might have been in Asia, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

Unlike the other teachers who arrived that night, I did not have a roommate waiting for me when I was taken to my apartment. He was supposed to arrive from Thailand a few days later (which turned out to be a week later). I got a quick tour of the apartment and was told that in the morning another ELS teacher would show me around town and how to get to the institute (just a ten-minute subway ride away). So, at least for this night, my first night in Korea I was on my own.

The apartment came furnished and even included a telephone and a TV. The refrigerator was stocked with a few items to satisfy any hunger pangs that I might have until I could get to the store. I didn’t find the package of “Digestive Crackers” too appealing (gee, I hope I could digest them), but a few hours later and feeling a little hungry, they hit the spot. They were similar to graham crackers and I had no trouble digesting them.

I turned on the TV and the David Letterman Show was on-courtesy of AFRTS, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service or as it was more appropriately called in Korea, AFKN (Armed Forces Korean Network). Weird. I might have traveled halfway around the world and ready to experience another culture, but there was David Letterman beaming into my apartment. And if I might also add, just in time for his Top Ten List.

I walked out on the balcony to have a smoke. On the sidewalk below I could hear people walking home from work and the bars. It had gotten foggier and cooler. A thousand points of light in the towering housing gulags across the street that dwarfed the smaller housing complex I lived in.

I listened to the night. I listened to this strange, new language drifting up, wondering how long it would be before I would be able to understand it.

And I wondered if I was going to like it here.

“I’m Henry the Eighth I am…”

Okay, for the record I want to emphasize that I have never, I repeat never fancied myself or considered myself to be much of a singer. I’m the kind of person that can carry pretty much anything but not carry a tune. Heck, I’m not even a good singer in the shower.

In elementary school we were forced to sing American folk songs like “On Top of Old Smoky”, “Swanee River,” “The Camptown Races,” “Home on the Range,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”-songs that we all butchered when possible and never really getting into the groove song-wise. And those two years of high school chorus? Lip-synching.

About the only time I have sung (other in the car with the radio or tape deck turned up loud enough to drown out my awful singing) was when I was usually loaded along with everyone else and you know how that goes, when you’re loaded everything sounds good and know one knows the difference.

I was in for a big surprise when I came to Korea in 1990 and soon discovered to my dismay that everyone was singing about something and going out to do it. Everyone knows about karaoke in Japan and elsewhere but back in Korea in the early 90s there were these places called noraebang – which roughly translated means singing (norae) room (bang) popping up everywhere.

Similar to a karaoke, a noraebang had a number of small rooms inside where people could get together and sing along (with a small karaoke machine). Some of these noraebang were (and still are) quite stylish with TV screens and videos, spinning disco balls, flashing lights, comfortable sofas and chairs. Many places sold alcoholic beverages and snacks so it was like having your own private party room.

In the beginning the English song selection was quite limited to such standard karaoke classics like “My Way” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” but by the end of the 90s you could sing anything from “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf to “Don’t Bring Me Down” by ELO.

Going out to a noraebang would soon become a popular activity in Korea, especially with students and colleagues, and soon I was being invited out. There was no way that I was going to be able to lip-synch now or even fake it because these karaoke machines also “scored” your singing ability. Most of the people I went to a noraebang with scored 90 points or above. I would soon learn what it meant to “lose face” when people found out just how bad a singer I was when I scored below 50 points.

And all the times when some students would say to me, “you good singer teacher” – I knew they were just being kind and perhaps worried about failing my class if they really told me what they really thought about my singing.

However, my singing debut in Korea was not in a noraebang, but instead at a student-lodging house better known as a ha-sook chip that in Korean that means boarding house. It was back in 1991 and one of my students had invited me to an “opening party” – Konglish (Korean-English)-for an open house at her friend’s boarding house. There would be a lot of food, beer, and to my surprise-singing. It was a sizable party-around 20 people including the students and their friends-as well as the husband and wife who owned the boarding house.

The party was in a large downstairs room with everyone seated on the floor around traditional Korean tables called sang which resemble rectangular-shaped coffee tables. The tables themselves were laden with various kinds of Korean food: kimbap (thinly rolled sheets of seaweed with rice, vegetables, ham and fried egg inside) fried rice, fried noodles, assorted pickled vegetables (kimchi), ddok (a chewy, glutinous rice cake filled with sweet bean paste) fruit, and beer.

Before we could eat, everyone had to introduce themselves and say a few words to say how happy he or she was to be there and to thank the owners of the boarding house. Of course all of this was done in Korean until it came to my turn and I introduced myself in English and said a few words that only a few people understood.

After we had eaten and had a couple of glasses of beer it came time to sing. Koreans love to sing and university students are known for singing a lot of traditional Korean folk songs. So, just like the introductions, everyone around the table had to sing a song including me.

I didn’t know what to sing. My mind was a blank. Everyone started clapping encouraging me to sing. Think Jeffrey. Think. A song. Quickly. Search your memory bank for any song. Hurry.

And that’s when I launched into “I’m Henry the VIII, I am” by Herman’s Hermits.

I guess if you’re going to have to sing any ditty to appease a rambunctious crowd you can’t go wrong with a rousing rendition of “Henry the VIII, I am.” It worked for me and other than Peter Noone’s version, my rendition that cold November evening back in 1991 was no doubt only the second version of the song ever heard or sung in Korea.

Everyone seated around the table started clapping in a backbeat sort of way and fortunately, it did not throw me off and I managed to finish the song amidst a flurry of applause.

Too bad I never came across that song at any of the noraebang I’ve been to in Korea. I am sure I could have gotten 100 points.

And as for Herman’s Hermits and any connection to my singing of that song, back in the 1960s I just missed seeing them at Ryan Crawley’s Tap in LaSalle, Illinois.

Back in the 1960s a lot of bands like Herman’s Hermits, The Animals, and The Turtles played at the Peru Youth Center in Peru, Illinois that was right off Rt. 80 and Rt. 51. These bands would stop off there after having played in Chicago for a set or two before heading off to another concert either south on Rt. 51 or west on Rt. 80. Dick Verucchi-the former drummer of Buckacre, The Jerks, Missing 51, and now playing out with Wake the Sheep-once told me that he was standing in the back of the Youth Center one afternoon listening to a band when Eric Burdon of The Animals walked up and stood next to him.

One Sunday afternoon I was out with my grandparents when they stopped at Ryan Crawley’s for a couple of drinks. My Grandpa Miller knew Ryan Crawley quite well and always made a regular habit of stopping at his tavern located on Rt. 351 (St. Vincent’s Ave) on the north end of LaSalle when he and my grandmother went out on Sunday afternoons. On that particular Sunday, after my grandparents had ordered a beer, Ryan told my grandfather how this band had just stopped in after playing at the Youth Center. He said they called themselves Herman’s Hermits and that they were from England.

“Good lads,” Ryan said. “They had a couple of Cokes and some candy bars and then went on their way.”

In 1990, Peter Noone was back in the Illinois Valley (LaSalle-Peru-Oglesby-Spring Valley), this time for a concert during Oglesby Celebration Days. I was back home at the time and my best friend and college roommate Luke McQuade were visiting so we went to see Peter Noone. Luke and I got in the front row and were kind of heckling Peter Noone and this female Illinois State Trooper who for some reason was standing at the back of the stage for crowd control or something. That’s what Luke and I were heckling Peter Noone about and soon, he was wondering why she was at the back of the stage, and at one point while he was singing, forgot some of the lyrics. Sorry about that Peter.

And sorry about how I butchered your song when I sang it the following year in Korea.

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.

Hey Earring!

Boy George’s hat almost got my ass kicked in Davenport, Iowa.

 

It was the winter of ’84 and I was back on the road again helping out 87 Men, formerly known as The Jerks. The band was still doing a lot of these one and two-night gigs in small clubs in Illinois and Iowa and one of them was at this club The Mad Hatter in Davenport, Iowa—a very popular haunt for university students from Augustana College across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois.

 

The hat that got me in trouble was not even mine but Ian Saroka’s who had replaced Dave “Bodine” Morgan in the band six months earlier. When Alan Thacker had bought a synthesizer in the summer of ’83 and the band started playing more “techno-electro pop” music and covers by bands like Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, Ultravox and Yaz, Bodine wasn’t too keen on this musical direction and quit. Ian Saroka joined the band not long after Bodine’s departure.

 

Ian was almost half the age of Dick or Alan and I suppose having a younger guy in the band was good for the band’s image—especially when playing some of these college town gigs. Hailing from the home of those classic rockers Cheap Trick—Rockford, Illinois, Ian was hip to a lot of the latest fashions and styles.

 

He had this really cool black hat that looked a lot like the one that Boy George had worn on Culture Club’s first album as well as in the band’s video “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” So, when I went on the road for the first time with 87 Men, I asked him if I could borrow it. I thought it would be the perfect complement to the black and gray cashmere overcoat I had bought for five bucks at this thrift store in Carbondale the previous fall as well as this cool drop earring that Liz a friend of mine at SIU had made in her jewelry class. The earring resembled two tiny metal coke spoons that hung down from an “infinity symbol” loop. It was an awesome earring that Liz had given me the last night I saw her at the Hangar 9 club in Carbondale.

 

“Sure, no problem,” Ian said as he tossed me the hat before we left the Illinois Valley on our way to Davenport that cold winter day. “Maybe it’ll even get you laid.”

 

Getting laid would end up being the least of my worries.

 

We arrived early in the afternoon (it’s only a ninety-minute drive from LaSalle-Peru) giving us enough time to setup and grab a bite to eat before the band played in the evening. The band still had the same equipment truck they had used when they were Buckacre and The Jerks that we parked out in front to unload the sound system and other equipment.

 

There were a few regulars seated at the bar having a couple of beers and chatting with the bartender, including two rough-looking ones—one wearing a John Deere cap the other a Cat cap.

 

They seemed to be engrossed in what the bartender was talking about and didn’t pay any attention to us bringing in the equipment until the third trip when they finally got around to noticing me.

 

“Hey look at that,” one of the men mumbled. “It’s f**kin’ Boy George.”

 

Laughter and a few snorts and cackles from around the bar.

 

“Hey Earring!” one of them snickered.

 

More laughter.

 

Great, I’m about to get my ass kicked by “two good ole boys” over a hat that wasn’t even mine.

 

Dick, who was setting up his drum kit, looked up me grinning.

 

“Don’t even think about it,” I said. “Don’t even….”

 

“Hey Earring,” Dick said laughing.

 

Great. I wasn’t going to hear the end of this.

 

Well, I didn’t get my ass kicked like I thought I would, but from that day on, I never heard the end of it especially from Dick and other members of the band. That’s what I got to hear from Dick for the next year—whether we were setting up equipment or when Dick talked to the audience between songs.

 

“Hey Earring! You gonna dance tonight? Hey Earring, do you want a drink? Hey Earring…”

 

Of course by then everyone knew that he was referring to me. What the heck, it was good for a lot of laughs and didn’t hurt my popularity any.

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?

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