Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: T.J. McFly’s

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.

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.

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