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June 9, 2008

Our favorite Gigs


They are legion. First off, Ike and Tina Turner review. (Hancock College, Santa Maria?) What a great show woman. This was in 1975. Young Tina with the Ikettes. The band was great. Tina and the Ikettes just shaking and kicking and dancing all over that stage for over an hour. We had done great with the crowd and I remember thinking at 22 years old, that they were going to have to follow us. At that time Walt Quinn played Raoul, the King of Rock and Roll -- our tribute to glitter rock. He had a white wig, a silver cape, a purple jump suit (that probably needed cleaning) and this great headdress he’d wear…purple plastic (he was royalty) fins down the front, sides of his face, and silver stars on thin metal spokes that shook above his head. When Tina had the crowd completely revved up, she left the stage and then came bolting back out wearing Raoul’s headdress. The crowd went crazy. She had the great showwoman’s instinct, to do it as a nod to how well we had done, and incorporate the crowd’s enthusiasm for us into their love of her. She also clearly has a great sense of humor. She came running onto the stage in Raoul’s headdress, shaking, shimmying and making those stars whip around like Walt had never done. A great moment.

But my favorite band was probably the much underappreciated Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. Before playing with them we saw them open for the Beach Boys at Winterland and they blew the Beach Boys off theb stage. (This was without Brian, tuning for five minutes between each song at a live show, they needed to go to Tina Turner school). The Cody boys were musically brilliant, and the tightest band I’ve ever seen in my life. Andy Stein on bari sax and fiddle (he now plays with Garrison Keillor’s band, he often mentions Andy during the show), Bill Kirchen (now with the Twangbangers, check out their version of “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The conceit is that they broke down and are passed by every distinctive guitar player in country, blues, and rock history and Bill plays brilliantly in the style of each) Billy C. Farlow, the lead singer, was just a fabulous, brilliant interpreter of country, rock and blues music, and funny, too. We played with them at least twice, my favorite was at a really cool club that’s no longer there, the Boarding House on Bush Street. (Steve Martin had played there the night before, it was the fall of ’74, he was unknown, but the help was still talking about his show). Cody and the group were great, really good guys, we played basketball on a hoop they had on the back of their bus before our shows in Modesto six months later. Walt and I went club hopping with George Frayn (the Commander) in his yellow Jaguar one night throughout Berkeley and San Francisco. Good people and incredibly talented. Unfortunately they couldn’t translate their live show to records. But they came close in the “Live from the Armadillo” concert album…”When the Sun Sets on the Sage”…the dual, harmony whistle solo, amazing, “Mean Woman Blues,” they were the best.


Well, this is a tough one. I will take a stab at it, but I could really spend a week writing on this topic. I mean we played four or five nights a week for four years.

KEYSTONE (BERKELEY)— I can’t say it was clean, but it was pretty cool. It had a great reputation and we played there a lot. The first time was with Tower of Power and I have to say I loved my dual life at that time, a mild mannered college Junior by day and my band playing at Keystone that night. I remember one night, while we were watching the headliners after we’d played, Bob Sarlatte turning to me and saying, “geez, Dads, (his nickname for me) I’m turning twenty-four tomorrow.” We played with Tower of Power a bunch of times. At Keystone I walked into their dressing room by mistake and one of the TofP guys was snorting something out of a dish. It could have been baking soda, I’m just saying, it was a little shocking for a history major from Saint Mary’s.

THE CAVE (VANCOUVER, B.C.) — The Cave was our home for the two (sometimes three) week stints we played in Vancouver, twice a year for three years. It was decorated to literally look like a cave, with plaster stalagtites, red shag carpeting (okay, not literally, geez), mirrors on the walls, there was a huge seating area on the lower level and a balcony that on both sides on a second level. It held six hundred people, maybe more. The first night we played there, unknown, the club was dying under it’s old management, we had twenty people in the house. Our roadie at the time carried the guitars out by the tuning pegs so from the first strum (we used to just start at sixty miles an hour and the first strum was once the show started) the guitars were horribly out of tune. We were reviewed in the Vancouver Sun the next day. Up until that time we’d only had good reviews (in the Chronicle, Examiner, etc). We were brilliantly, wittily roasted by their critic Don Stanley (“…from the Three Stooges-Gene Kinisky (a well-known wrestler) school of comedy…”). It was a lonely place to play until their terrible P.R. guy, got us an interview with a top drive time D.J., Rick Honey. Rick came to see us and he just loved it, particularly the Big Fella Show. He talked about us non-stop on his radio show and the last weekend we packed the club and the crowd went crazy for us every night. It was like that on each subsequent trip. I still have friends from our time up there. I wanted to move to Vancouver but I figured out that I probably wouldn’t be attracting six hundred people a night once I lived up there. Often friends would drop by…Leo McKillip, who’d coached Jerry and me in football at Saint Mary’s was head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos and saw our name on the marquee and dropped by…Boz Scaggs, and his band, who we’d played with, came by…it was great to be us when we were on stage at the Cave.

ALPENA, MICHIGAN — We had a tour of colleges in Ohio and Michigan in ’73. We had a drug addicted manager at the time…he’d once worked for Bill Graham. We didn’t ask why he no longer worked for him, we were thrilled he wanted to manage us. At one point he’d had his phone shut off. So we had a manager without a phone. At the time I pictured him opening his window and shouting at passers-by, “hey, you want a band?” We had auditioned in the City, for people who block booked college tours. They liked us and booked us. After we were half-way to Ohio, we found out our brilliant manager had never followed through and told them we were coming. We thought we had thirty to forty dates lined up. It was hell. Many of the colleges were great and let us play anyway. During the tour, we drove to this college in Alpena, way at the top of the Michigan peninsula (how many of you knew Michigan had a peninsula?) [Gary, actually they have two -- the upper and lower peninsulas.]. It had been a difficult month on the road, we felt like we were driving to the end of the Earth, it’s a long way up there, and went through our routine, unpacking the equipment, setting up for the show, etc. That night this beautiful theater that held a few thousand people was packed and it was one of the best crowds we’ve ever had. At a time, when we were so down, it was just the best feeling in the world. I can still see the raked seating, that went up really high, and just this crowd loving our show. One of those moments where you do a 180 emotionally. Very cool.

THE GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC HALL (SAN FRANCISCO) — We played at the Music Hall, I’d say forty or fifty times. It was a great weekend when we’d be playing Friday and Saturday night there. For those who’ve never been inside, I remember describing it at the time as looking like the place the Cartwrights went to the Opera. It was old (it’s even older now), with pillars, and balconies and gold leaf (I think) and carvings, and mirrors… It was always seemed like a more sophisticated crowd (more sophisticated than say, the Red Lion in San Leandro wherever it was), just great to walk up O’Farrell and see our name on the marquee. A few years earlier I’d been living in Fresno, so to be playing this big club in S.F. really made me feel like I’d been transported to another universe. It amused me then and it does now to see our name amidst the musical giants who played there before and after we did. A common Sunday pink section ad for the Music Hall would feature Sarah Vaughn, Willie Dixon, Duke Ellington and Butch Whacks and the Glass Packs (I have the ad).

THE MOTHERLODE (SAN FRANCISCO) — This tiny restaurant/club really launched our extended career. We spent the summer of ’72 having a great time there. It’s in that brown brick four story building next to the Metro theater on Union Street. Dante Serafini, Lazz’s childhood friend and owner of the Stinking Rose, worked there and booked us. It was tiny, but we just threw ourselves into that show and played our hearts out. We would pack it to beyond the gills. The bartenders were hard guys who wouldn’t serve us younger members. After they saw how we brought people in, it was free drinks all night. We got the gate, and John Buick who was nineteen was collecting and carding people at the door. He turned away some S.I. guys who were a year older than him. I never drank much before that, but free booze at a Union Street club, and I was underage…I think you know the rest of this sad story. I was told I passed out in the middle of singing “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and Lazz grabbed the mike and finished the song. A cautionary tale that brought new meaning to the lyrics. It’s the club where we met The Big Fella, Bob Sarlatte. He had gone to Saint Ignatius with Craig and he’d come by and see us and stay after hours playing music, making us laugh. So when Lazz and Craig left to tour Europe, we invited the big man to join us.

THE BOATHOUSE (SAUSALITO) — We played upstairs every Tuesday night for maybe two years. We’d pack the club. The owner wore a net shirt. And I think he did some jail time (not for the shirt, but it should have been) during our tenure. One day there was this biker dude bartender who had decided it was it was his club and he was going to tell us what’s what. He hassled us about everything. That night, it was hot and summer time, we squeezed hundreds of people into the club. The windows steamed up, people were drinking like maniacs. Afterwards we were gods to him. He said, “man, I never poured so many drinks in my life. With you guys playing and me pouring, we are going to make a fortune. Why did I move on? I’ll share a slightly off color favorite story from the Boathouse. Stop reading here if you’re easily offended. After our show, Bob and I were standing by the bar. This huge guy, bad sideburns, a Mobil gas station shirt with the name tag Pete on it. It wasn’t an affectation, it wasn’t a “cool” attitude shirt. No, he’d just come from work. He leaned in and said, “Hi, Pete Flemming.” He told us how much he enjoyed the show and then he leaned in confidentially to Bob and I and said, “keep playing that Beach Boys music…it makes the chicks cream their jeans.” We nodded and thanked Pete. He moved on and we couldn’t stop laughing. To this day, on occasion, when talking about something that was enjoyable, a good show, a good restaurant, a nice vacation, we can always get a laugh from each other by adding, “it was total Pete Flemming time.” It was also at the BoatHouse where we met Ed Montague. Then an umpire in training, now a senior major league umpire. Bob used to make us laugh doing umpire calls. His best, a close call at third the runner’s out, but the third baseman drops the ball…just a lot of screaming…”heeeeeee…nonononononono….Hewwwwwwwwww.” Someone found out Ed was in training to be an umpire, so we balled up paper towels, had a pitcher, batter and catcher and made Ed call balls and strikes in the hallway outside the club. Finally, the Marin chapter of the Hells Angels used to come see us play every Tuesday. A huge group of them. Their leader was this six foot eight guy named Red. Red would sit impassively, drinking shots of tequila during our two sets. He never did talk to us. But after every show, the other Angels would be hugely enthusiastic and tell us, “Red loves you guys.”

I’ve left out the Three of Cups in San Mateo (I think) where we played with Carter the Hypnotist. He walked into our dressing room while we were clearly trying to debunk his act. The Prime Time in Rome, Georgia, where two drunk idiots were going to jump up right as the stage lit up like Venus with the giant Big Fella sign and every light we the club had, while Bob came out in his gold lame jacket. The Red Lion in Winnipeg where a waiter, despondent over the break up of a relationship, stuck his hands in the deep fryer, paramedics arrived with Father Duffy and Raoul the Kind of Rock and Roll trying to calm everyone down before they went on, and much, much, much, much more.



Let's see…. my favorite personal band we worked with...Well, it WOULDN'T be Chuck Berry (although he technically used OUR band), since he made Larry do a piano solo until his hands bled, never told the band what keys his songs were in, and then invited the entire audience on the stage at the end of the show for US to deal with. Oh, and lets not forget (I already had!) "Sperm Whale"-- simply brutal!"

We did, though, work with a lot of the bigger acts of the day--The Pointer Sisters, Elvin Bishop, Boz Scaggs, Pablo Cruise, etc., but despite their sheer cockiness, I liked opening for the Doobie Brothers; they were just about at the top of their game--plus even then I thought their platform shoes looked ridiculous...It also gave Jerry and Gary, the Fresno Boys, something to crow about in their hometown, plus I think we were reviewed well.


First of all, looking back at the fact that we played with a lot of great bands – Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, Elvin Bishop, the Pointer Sisters, Boz Scaggs, Ike & Tina Turner, Eric Burdon (loudest band I have ever been around), Pablo Cruise and Huey Lewis (then a singer with the Marin County band Clover), David La Flame, Bo Diddley, and yes, even the Coasters -- is really kind of cool. (It almost even impresses my kids.) The fact that Pablo and Huey opened for us is even more amazing to me.

Despite the Big Guy's feelings, and the conditions he mentions playing behind Chuck Berry (all true), that Sunday in Monterey is still one of the highlights of my life. Not one rehearsal, not not even a hint of a set list. Our only pre-concert instructions were "buy his double album." The day of our show (at the storied Monterey Fairgrounds) I tried to get a set list but he was somewhat pre-occupied with a very good looking young blonde lady -- who for the sake of argument we'll assume was his business manager. Finally twenty minutes after we finished our set, and with the crowd clapping and chanting "Chuck Chuck," he walks out of his dressing room door -- apparently finished with a grueling discussion over potential offshore tax write-offs. He says not a word to us except something to the effect of "Let's go" and we follow him on stage, having no idea of the order of songs, what songs we're actually doing, or the keys we're going to do them in.

He starts playing two repetitive beats of a single chord -- DUNH-duh! DUNH-duh! etc. and gestures for us -- the musicians, Bruce Lopez on base, Rob Birsinger on guitar, Mike Moore on drums, Pete Gordon on sax, and yours truly on piano — to follow him. We do and the next thing you know, we are through one number -- without ever changing the DUNGH-duh riff. Then he swings his guitar neck down for us to stop and he starts an opening lick in a different key. I put my ear to the keys and start hitting some chords and quickly find the answer and stand up and yell to my bandmates -- "he's in E! he's in E!!!" This went on all afternoon — "He's in A!" one song, He's in D flat!" the next — through Sweet Little Sixteen, Memphis, Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, -- which had my legendary (to me, at least) 96 bar solo (thinking I was only going to get the standard 12 bars I gave it everything I had for those 12, and then the next 12 and by bar 48 my right hand was pretty much toast. But I somehow made it through the rest of the show until Chuck invites the crowd on stage -- seemingly 2,000 of his closest personal friends and next thing we know Chuck is nowhere in sight. We wind down the song and get ourselves and our equipment out of there. Not the most professional of endings, but amazingly good fun.

I also liked the Rubinoos – a great band that got some good local publicity, had a whiff of success with a remake of "I Think We're Alone Now," but never really got over the “made it” hump . They had good harmonies , a good sound, and a sense of humor – I just liked them. Some internet spelunking shows they are back together and some of the members sued and settled with Avril Lavigne over similarities between their song "Girlfriend" and her song "I Want to Be Your Boyfriend." The two sides settled -- that’s one way of actually making money in the music business.

But like Gary, when talking favorites I’m a Commander Cody kind of guy as well. Gary’s right about their albums not really capturing their on-stage energy. Their music – Bob Wills meets Woodstock -- was incredibly tight, economic and somehow amazingly energetic. We first played with them in Modesto -- which Al Golub (a photographer then working for the Modesto Bee) caught on film and shots from those shows (and photos of many other bands as well) can be seen at his Golub Photography website. (if you want to see a much skinnier, younger version of the Glass Packs here’s one way to do it.)

The Commander himself, George Frayne, is still playing in the upstate New York area – near where former Cody lead guitarist John Tichy is now Chair of Aeronautical Engineering (Rocket Science) and Mechanical Engineering at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate, New York.

In general, most of the clubs were fun -- okay, maybe King Richard's wasn't on some nights. I even have fond memories of the Odyssey Room in Sunnyvale, the Oaks in Sacramento, the Playboy Club in Chicago (with a young starting-out Barry Manilow in the same hotel as us), the Marco Polo in North Miami Beach, and all the Canadian clubs - the Cave, the Cave (although it had changed its name by then) in Winnipeg, the Red Lion Inn in Saskatoon (home of the famous hand-in-the deep fryer, and me singing "Never Can Say Goodbye" -- each a real tragedy in its own way), the Big Guy DJing the dance set in his lime green leisure suit in Indianapolis, and the club in Thunder Bay where the Big Guy popped his achilles tendon during a game of 4am basketball at the local YMCA. I mean, how can you not have good memories about playing the Holiday Inn in Greenville, South Carolina or the Prime Time in Rome, Georgia -- where the lights of the Big Fella sign pop on, illuminating some drunk good ol' boys who are ready to fire silver bullets at us -- I guess their girl friends were paying more attention to us than the boys' missing teeth.

Lots of good memories from the old "on the road" days, but I think if we had many more, we likely might have killed ourselves in the process.




  © 2008 Butch Whacks & the Glass Packs