Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Peru Illinois

Hot off the Presses!

Bureau 39 First BatchThe first batch of Bureau 39 arrived in Daejeon today, and in the immortal words of Ed Grimley (Martin Short) what a thrill it was to open the box to see all these copies, if I must say. This is one book that readers are going to love holding in their hands. As much as eBooks have given me the chance to read more books, there’s no better thrill a new book gives you when you hold it in your hands and begin to read it. And not just a new book.

I remember it was the summer of 1975 and I was hanging out with my friend David Walther. After he had broken both of his wrists, thanks to a movie I wanted to do (in the movie he had to jump from a train trestle–a story for another time) there wasn’t a lot we could do. Both of us expressed an interest in joining the Air Force after graduation from La-Salle-Peru Township High School the following year. One hot summer day, we walked to the Air Force Recruiting Station on Fourth Street in Peru, Illinois to get some information about the Air Force with David’s father who had served in the Air Force in the 1940s.

On the way back to David’s house, we walked down Fourth Street and stopped at a used book store in the old Turnhall Building. Although very hot, the inside was cool; the smell of all those old books was sweet and musky, like some exotic perfume. We all bought a couple books, and if my memory serves me correctly, I bought a collection of Rod Serling stories. But it was the first time I understood the thrill of holding a book in my hands and thinking not only about the people who might have read it before me, but the author’s life–the sweat and toil that went into its creation. It was that physical connection to other readers and the author which made me realize then, as it does now, the value of the written word and something that all of us writers strive for when we sit down and write.

I loved that feeling. I want to feel it more.

My Favorite Ice Cream Summer Memory

I think right now it would be going to the Tastee Freeze with my friends. One of my best friends is back in the area where we grew up back in the 70s and I was thinking today about how we would pile into his family station wagon and drive out to the west end of Peru, Illinois to the Tastee Freeze for a banana split.

This was a time before there were Dairy Queen’s, at least in the Illinois Valley. Almost every town had a Tastee Freeze. There was the one on the west end of Peru and another one in Spring Valley.

Even John Mellencamp sang about one.

Sucking on a chili dog outside a Dairy Queen just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Ghosts of Christmas Past — A snowy night in the Illinois Valley

On a quiet, snowy Tuesday night in December 1980, I am sliding and fishtailing down Water Street on my way to Murphy’s Saloon where The Jerks are playing that evening.

It’s a good thing there are no other cars on the street-that runs through an industrial section of Peru, Illinois that in turn is located on the banks of the Illinois River-with the way I have been sliding and skidding along. It’s the first real heavy snowfall that I have driven on in years and I am having the time of my life.

It’s been a bittersweet and tragic December. First there was John Lennon being gunned down outside his Dakota apartment; then it was coming home for the holidays after finishing my first full-length semester at Southern Illinois University to find out that my grandmother was in the hospital. My major at SIU was supposed to be filmmaking but after all the concerts and parties, well let’s just say my grade point average for that semester gave new meaning to the term swan dive. No problem, I would have a strong C going into my third semester. And as for my grandmother, she was just in the hospital as a precaution after suffering some dizziness. She would be out in time for Christmas.

So there I was, sliding and skidding along Water Street. I really had no business to be out that night; after all I had seen The Jerks the past weekend, but a lot of people would be there like my very good friend Chris Vasquez. We had bumped into each other one night in October, the first time we had seen each other in over four years and we were becoming tight again.

What I like most about December snow is that if the conditions are just right-temperature and moisture wise-when it does start to snow you can be in for a lot of the white stuff. As long as it stays right around freezing. Don’t want it to get too cold. Then it’s not so fun sliding down the street after you have locked the brakes.

And that’s just what happened in the morning of the 23rd when that white started to come down and come down and just kept on coming down the rest of the afternoon and early evening. It had caught everyone by surprise, not the least of which were the city workers, the snow removal guys who couldn’t get enough trucks out in time to start clearing the streets. And the snow kept on coming down.

When I finally slid into a parking space in front of Murphy’s Saloon, which had once been a small grocery store in the 1930s, it didn’t look like too many people had made it out that night. Still, there was a good crowd inside-mostly the regulars, those who followed The Jerks wherever they played in the Illinois Valley (LaSalle-Peru-Oglesby-Spring Valley) at places like Murphy’s, Friday’s Saloon (just down the street from Murphy’s) and Three N’ Company on St. Vincent’s Avenue on the north end of LaSalle.

The Jerks were this popular New Wave cover band that played a lot of New Music covers by bands like The Vapors, The Police, XTC, The Jags, and The Fabulous Poodles with a lot of 60s rock-The Beatles, The Stones, and The Kinks-thrown in for good measure. Comprised of three former members of Buckacre–Dick Verucchi, Alan Thacker, and Dave “Bodine” Morgan–along with Al Schupp, The Jerks were one of the area’s more popular bands along with Longshot. Back in October of that year, the News Tribune had an article about them and other bands playing the local bar circuit, calling it a “resurgence of rock and roll.” Other than this night when only the courageous and diehard braved the elements to get down to Murphy’s just to dance and party, The Jerks packed them in wherever they played.

That’s what really made the night special. There it was, the night before Christmas Eve, the whole area blanketed with a couple inches of snow that would stay for a couple of days, and just being with people that you really wanted to be with because you all liked the same music. Kind of tapped into the magic of the season. That’s what it is all about, coming home for the holidays and being with loved ones and friends and enjoying your time together.

And then later that night, or should I say early in the morning, with the head buzzing from all the one hits and beer, my ears ringing from the music, I am driving back home down First Street in LaSalle which was still covered with snow. As I slowly maneuvered my car down that snowy street, I gaze up at the illuminated Christmas tree on the top of these cement silos for Illinois Valley Cement. Every year they put up a Christmas tree on top that you could see for miles and now, it was like some beacon guiding me home.

Many Christmases have come and gone since that night; some good, some not so good. When I need to draw upon some of the Christmas and Yuletide magic of those years gone by, I often travel back to that night in 1980.

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Buckacre — Country Rock from America’s Heartland

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

On the Road with The Jerks — Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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